Willpower: Essential to keeping good resolutions

Are you still working on your new year's resolutions? Or have you become discouraged and disregarded some or all of the items on your list?

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The flurry of making New Year’s resolutions is past. Are you still working on them? Or have you become discouraged and disregarded some or all of the items on your list?

Perhaps your list included things like:

  • I’m going to relax and not worry so much.
  • I will eat less and exercise more so I can lose weight.
  • I will spend more time each day in Bible study.
  • I’ll spend more quality time with my family.

I had to ask myself a question the other day: Why are some of my resolu­tions the same as last year and the year before? The answer is very disconcert­ing. They certainly were important and worthy, so I included them again this year.

Our brains have enormous “plastic­ity.” That means we can create new cells and pathways in the most remarkable ways. At the same time, our brains create strong tendencies to do the same things over and over again. These pathways persist for a lifetime, never completely going away.

Lasting change requires establishing new pathways, and that takes a lot of practice. Brain scientists tell us it takes six to nine months to create new path­ways that are stronger than the old ones. Sadly, there are no weeklong programs that magically change us for good. 1

We find it easy to make a list of resolutions but far harder to put them into practice. Sometimes though, we fall into common resolution pitfalls like:

  • Being vague about what we want. The more specific the resolution, the easier it will be to accomplish (for example, I will not snack between meals versus I will eat less).
  • Not making a serious commitment (for example, sometime this year I will . . .).
  • Becoming discouraged and turning slip-ups into give-ups. All of us blow it once in a while. Remember, we only fail when we fail to try again.

To truly change requires willpower, which is a finite commodity that gets depleted as we use it. Yet at the same time, it becomes strengthened by repetitive use. In many ways willpower is like a muscle. Doing a whole lot of pushups and then immediately jumping up to see how much you can bench press does not work. Yes, over time muscles can be strengthened, but in the short run, they get fatigued.

A book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, provides some fascinating insights into how our brains work to bring about change in our lives. Willpower is a precious com­modity, so how can we best manage it? The book suggests several ways:

  • Know when it is freshest and strongest. Willpower is at its peak in the morning after a good night’s rest.
  • Spend it wisely. Prioritize what you spend it on. Do not waste it on insignificant, worthless endeavors. Spend it to cultivate right habits.
  • Be aware of decision fatigue. Few people are aware of this phenom­enon. Yet this affects all of us. The more decisions you have to make, the greater the risk of a foolish one.
  • Set goals, but not too many at one time. Working on too many changes at one time usually leads to discouragements and failure.

Too often we try to make our resolutions reality by ourselves. The help of family and friends can be crucial to success. However, too often we overlook God in our change process.

The Bible teaches that God is the great restorer of the will. Prayer, Bible study, and meditation on His love restores, and does not deplete, willpower. This one act of will actually replenishes willpower.

“It is our privilege, as children of God, to hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering. At times the masterly power of temptation seems to tax our willpower to the uttermost, and to exer­cise faith seems utterly contrary to all the evidences of sense or emotion; but our will must be kept on God’s side. We must believe that in Jesus Christ is everlasting strength and efficiency. . . . Hour by hour we must hold our position triumphantly in God, strong in His strength.”2

It is for you to yield up your will to the will of Jesus Christ, and as you do this God will immediately take posses­sion and work in you to will and to do of His good pleasure. Your whole nature will then be brought under the control of the Spirit of Christ, and even your thoughts will be subject to Him.3

It is not easy for me to surrender my will and admit that I need His help. Paul said it best in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV).

As I look at my resolution history, I need that help. How about you?



1    For some fascinating insights into how our brains work to bring about change in our lives, see the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).

2 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1977), 687.

3 Ibid., 694

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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

March 2016

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