Taking on some resolutions for the New Year? You'll need to stick to them. Here's the science behind improving your willpower.


Don’t throw your sweets out

Now the New Year has arrived, it might seem like a good idea to throw out any sweets left over from Christmas to avoid the temptation. Well, don’t.

In one experiment, researchers at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium put temptation in the way of student volunteers in the form of a bowl of Quality Street they were not allowed to eat. When they later had M&Ms placed in front of them, they ate fewer than the students who hadn’t had the Quality Street temptation.

Learning to resist temptation can have a powerful effect.


Swill a sugary drink

Having a quick hit of glucose by drinking a sugary drink can boost your willpower, several studies appear to show.

Weirdly, you don’t even need to drink the sugary stuff to get the benefit. Research carried out by psychologist Prof Martin Hagger while he was at Curtin University in Australia, showed that when volunteers just swilled a sugary drink around their mouths and spat it out, it still increased their willpower for tasks such as squeezing a hand grip or completing difficult brain teasers.

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Avoid multiple resolutions

If exerting our willpower can diminish it for a while, it makes no sense taking on too many New Year’s resolutions at once.

While studies have shown resolving to diet and exercise can work if their collective goal is to reduce weight, tackling different goals simultaneously, such as losing weight, swearing less and tidying up more, could present too much of a willpower strain.

“What I advise is to do them in sequence,” says Prof Roy Baumeister at the University of Queensland in Australia.


Control your environment

Certain behaviours, such as eating too much or drinking too much alcohol, are sometimes prompted by cues in our environment. It could be that sitting down and watching TV alone prompts us to eat three packets of crisps in a row. Or a pub quiz night prompts us to drink excessively.

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“One strategy is to recognise the cues and try to structure the environment, so the cues don’t arise or you have some sort of alternative,” says Prof Martin Hagger at University of California, Merced.


Use mindfulness and meditation

An experiment carried out by Swiss researchers asked volunteers to watch disgusting YouTube videos showing things like someone having a spot squeezed on their back. But, to put their willpower under strain, they were banned from showing any response, such as grimacing.


They were then tasked with crossing out apostrophes in strings of letters. Those who had practised mindfulness meditation between the two tasks, such as focusing on their breathing, performed better in the second test than those who hadn’t.


Andy is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Programme Leader of the MSc in Science Communication and an award-winning journalist