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Lack of Willpower May Be Obstacle to Improving Personal Health and Finances

Update Date: Feb 15, 2012 06:52 PM EST
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Almost everyone living in America made a resolution to change some aspect of their behavior in 2012, according to a recent survey released by the American Psychological Association. Yet people consistently report that a lack of willpower is the top reason they fall short of their goals to lose weight, save more money, exercise or make other lifestyle changes.
 
The survey conducted online on behalf of the APA by Harris Interactive among 566 adults in December, found that 93 percent of people set a goal to change their behavior this year. The survey is a continuation of APA's annual Stress in AmericaTM poll, which found that many Americans report lack of willpower as a significant barrier to achieving their goals.

People can enhance their willpower if they can learn to deploy it more effectively, according to a companion report released by APA. "What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control" explores leading research into the nature and consequences of people's ability to exert self-control. This research suggests that willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as better grades, higher self-esteem, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health. The capacity for self-control appears to be persistent throughout a person's life: research shows that those with better self-control as preschoolers tend to have better control as adults. But, just as muscles are strengthened by consistent exercise, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength over time, recent studies suggest.

"Self-control can be learned and strengthened," said Steven J. Breckler, PhD, a social psychologist and executive director of APA's Science Directorate. "For example, avoiding the sources of temptation and planning ahead are effective techniques for maintaining self-control.  Research shows that exercising your willpower in one situation may drain your self-control for other situations that immediately follow.  So, just like with physical exercise, it is smart to avoid taking on too much at once. First, focus on one goal, strengthen your willpower, and then take on more goals over time."

The most frequently reported goals that people set for 2012 were those aimed at improving health (57 percent reported a goal to lose weight, 50 percent reported a goal to eat a healthier diet, and 41 percent reported a goal to start exercising regularly) or financial status (52 percent reported a goal to save more money, and 37 percent reported a goal to pay off debt), according to the follow-up survey. For adults trying to make a lifestyle change, however, willpower is an important factor.  The annual survey found that one in four reported that willpower (27 percent) or time (26 percent) prevented them from making the change they were trying to achieve. Despite difficulties with willpower, a majority of those responding to the annual survey (71 percent) believe that willpower can be learned, which is good news since psychological research demonstrates that this is true.

"It is reassuring to know that even though people view a lack of willpower as a hurdle in their quest to live healthier lives, they believe they can learn the skills they need to change their lifestyles," said psychologist Norman Anderson, PhD, APA's CEO and executive vice president. "Research shows that setting goals, as well as tracking progress and seeking out a community of support, can be tremendously effective in helping people increase their self-control and lead healthier lives."

Findings from the follow-up survey support psychological research that suggests having a plan to tackle behavior change can improve outcomes. Adults who reported that they are extremely or very motivated to make a lifestyle or behavior change were significantly more likely than unmotivated respondents to say they were doing an excellent or very good job of setting clear goals (62 percent vs. 17 percent). Those who were more motivated reported better monitoring progress toward goals (57 percent vs. 14 percent); avoiding people, things or situations that lead to temptation (44 percent vs. 24 percent); and postponing what they want in the short term to achieve longer term goals (47 percent vs. 6 percent).

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