12/31/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

Forget Willpower -- Here's How to Make Your New Year's Resolution a Success


We had a RIDICULOUS amount of chocolate in the house over the holidays, and it was fast becoming a major food group for me. It didn't seem to matter how much I told myself not to eat it, that I was going to regret it later and tried to resist it, I couldn't stop eating it.

My willpower sucks.

And so does yours.

Everyone's does, and science shows it. Researchers have found that willpower is a lot like a muscle: It gets tired out and exhausted with repeated use. The more we use it, the less of it we have! [1]

Instead of using willpower for your New Year's resolution this year, there's another strategy that makes it much easier. In fact, it almost makes it automatic.

We're highly influenced by our environments. They subconsciously dictate how and where we move, in addition to how and what we eat -- and we're completely unaware of most of it. Environments full of food engineered to appeal to our primal taste buds and an endless array of labor saving devices quickly exhaust our willpower to eat less and move more.

So here's what I did to stop eating so much freakin' chocolate: I created an optimal default that set me up to not have to use willpower in the first place. I moved it all into the baking cupboard where I couldn't see and it where I never look. It has DRASTICALLY reduced how much chocolate I've eaten.

An optimal default is a small tweak to your environment that helps make behavior change automatic.

For example, research has shown that when we switch from a 12-inch dinner plate to a 10-inch one, we will eat 22 percent less food without being aware of it. [2] Use willpower to put or eat less food from a big plate, and we'll eventually succumb and eat more. But put less food on a smaller plate, and it tricks our brains into automatically eating less.

Here are a few more examples of optimal defaults:

  • Drink from a taller, thinner glass. We will unknowingly pour more liquid into a short, wide glass -- up to 30 percent more. [3]
  • When having a meal, plate it out first then keep all serving bowls in one place while you eat in another. If you decide you want to stand up, walk over, and get a little more food, you'll know it's because you're truly not sated.
  • On the phone = on your feet. Whenever the phone rings it's your signal to get up and pace while talking.
  • Set your phone or computer with a reminder to get up and move several times during the day.
  • Shop from the perimeter of the grocery store to avoid processed foods.
  • Keep a stash of healthy snacks like nuts, nutrition bars, or whole grain crackers in the car, your briefcase or purse.
  • Turn off your TV. You'll be more active and skip all the commercials for fast and junk food.
  • Join a social group centered around exercise.

Microclimates full of optimal defaults make a desired behavior automatic. We suddenly find ourselves moving more, eating less, and reaping the benefits -- without thinking about it. We experience fewer negative side effects from stress, we've got better energy, we're more focused and productive, and we're happier.


[1] McGonigal, Kelly. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. London: Penguin Group.

[2] Harvard Medical School. Healthbeat Newsletter. Controlling What - and How Much - We Eat. November 8, 2011.

[3] Wansink, B. Mindless Eating. 2006. Bantam Books.