Goal-setting, Willpower and Behaviour Change - Part 1 

It’s the dawn of a new year and I daresay that a new year’s resolution has passed many a pair of lips. 

This would not be surprising. In fact, it’s part of a phenomenon known as the Fresh Start Effect’. The Fresh Start Effect is the tendency to set goals around a temporal landmark, such as a birthday or the day following a public holiday, or a time that represents a new beginning such as the first of the week, month, season or year. Researchers attribute this behaviour to the associated feeling of separation from our past imperfections and indiscretions, and the promise of success glinting in our future.  

The focus of this article is on why we fall short of achieving our goals and its relationship with willpower. In part 2, we will overview strategies to help us finally conquer those goals!  

Goals are easy, you say, I make them all the time!  We are a nation of goal collectors, products of an individualistic culture of ambition and achievement. Perhaps more accurate would be to pose that we are, rather than goal collectors, goal hoarders. We enthusiastically (and naively) accumulate life ambitions but often fail to give them life.  

No, goals are certainly not known for their ability to be achieved; they are notoriously elusive. The oddity here is that goals are usually set with sincere intentions – intentions which remain intact whilst we engage in behaviours directly opposed to our supposed goals. So it seems that goals can be slippery things, and intentions quite cheap. A meta-analysis by Webb and Sheeran (2006) deemed the power of intention to be quite limited in affecting successful, long-term behaviour change. How many people do you know who have set the same goal time and again? Who do you know who has yet to either reach their goal or maintain their goal state? I can think of at least one goal that I’ve successfully (note my positive reframe here) and repeatedly fallen short of during the past year (it also happens to be my new year’s resolution…).  

So what insanity is going on here that leads us to do the same thing over and over, expecting to get different results? Let me start with assuring you that the answer is not to give up on your goals. Identifying and setting goals are a good thing. Goal-setting, regardless of what the goal may be, actually has been shown to be positively associated with wellbeing and happiness. Considering the construct of willpower may shed some light on this murky matter. I can sense the collective cringe of dieters and exercisers alike, for willpower is often cited as one of the primary reasons for not following through with an intention. Willpower is partly defined by the American Psychological Association as the conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self, but reaching our goals are clearly not as simple as merely applying some willpower.   

Research has offered a range of well-established explanations for this, with Baumeisters’ theory of willpower depletion leading the charge (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven & Tice, 1998). This theory holds that  willpower is a finite cognitive resource, which decreases as we draw on self-control throughout the day. Think about how much harder it is to resist that tempting glass of wine, or couch surfing instead of going for a jog after a tough day where you’ve had to exert a high level of self-control. Maybe you might hear yourself say something like “tomorrow I’ll try again”, or “I deserve this, its been a really hard day”. Imagine how easily you may snap at a spouse after a day where you’ve had to maintain your composure during a heated workplace drama. Perhaps following this, you refrained from indulging in some dreamy looking going away cupcakes for your colleagues. There are many versions of these scenarios playing out in each of our lives on a daily basis. This theory is backed by studies demonstrating a biological basis for willpower. One such study demonstrates changes in brain activity in an area known for its role in cognition (Inzlicht & Gutsell, 2009), in individuals who have been intentionally depleted of self-control. Another shows blood glucose levels to positively correlate with self-control levels, and an injection of glucose restoring participants’ ability to practice self-discipline (Gailliot et al., 2007).  

In the face willpower depletion theory and the power of past habits, goal setting may seem a futile endeavor. To the contrary, understanding the limitations of intention and willpower is empowering - it helps us understand where our hurdles and therefore our opportunities lie. 

Many factors have actually been identified as effective in keeping the willpower depletion effect in check. Among these are: 

  • A positive mood: Hands up who, despite their best intentions to eat less sugar, has given in to the temptation of chocolate cake when blue? 

  • Intrinsic motivation: When our goal is aligned with a personal value we are more likely to maintain self-discipline. 

  • Habit formation: Turning a behaviour into a habit means we don’t need to keep relying on our willpower stores. Habits result when we frequently perform a behaviour in a consistent context (Danner, Aarts & de Vries, 2008)

  • Appropriate blood sugar management: This means eating in a way that ensures we don’t experience sugar spikes and dips by not skipping meals, and eating complex carbohydrates that provide a long lasting form of energy.  

  • Goal primers: Environmental cues can be very useful to prime the types of thinking and behaviours that align with our goals. A goal primer may be a sticky note with a message to yourself on your reusable shopping bag, that reminds you at just the right moment to make better consumer choices.  

  • Specific implementation intentions: ‘If-then’ plans for when our intention wavers make it easier for us to override our more automatic impulses (Webb & Sheeran, 2006). This type of plan specifies the opportunity to act, as well as the appropriate action to take should that opportunity arise. For example, if you have an intention to drink less alcohol but you are on your way to a party, an ‘if-then’ plan may look like this: “If someone offers me an alcoholic drink, I will have a soda water and lime instead.”  

  • Skepticism in the belief of willpower depletion: So take it with a pinch of salt. Willpower is not your destiny!  

As we close out part one of this article, I encourage you to reflect on your own goals; those you’ve achieved, and those which have proven more elusive. Now see if you can pinpoint what it was that allowed you to achieve one goal, and not the other.  

In part 2 we will explore some useful tips and frameworks that will help you realise your intentions.  

Blog by Ance Strydom