Why is it so hard to keep New Year's Resolutions?This article is the third in a series on tips for lawyers to use your brain to its full capacity. It’s based off a presentation I gave at MILOFest 2012 called “Hacking Your Mind”. You can find the first article here and the second article here.

So far so good. I’ve been exercising, eating well, staying über-organized, stopping myself from zombie-like web usage, and staying in the moment. My New Year’s resolutions are on course eight days in.

But will I resist the inevitable slide into my normal habits? Why is it always so hard to keep my New Year’s Resolutions?

It helps to understand the causes of our annual tradition of aiming to be better, then more often than not, reverting to our usual selves. So welcome to Mind Hacking Part 3, where we talk about decision making and phenomenon called “ego depletion”.

Here’s what science is telling us about ego depletion in a nutshell: the more decisions you make in a day, the less you’re able to control your will power. You are less willing or able to exert self-control when the next decision comes around. Ego-depleted people have a greater urge to quit than others, so think about that late at night, way after dinner, when you’re about to snarf down some chocolate chip cookies. Here’s a description about one experiment which studies decision fatigue:

The Experiment

“When they came to the lab, students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices. Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-shirt? A control group, meanwhile — let’s call them the nondeciders — spent an equally long period contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to give their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.”

“Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater. The deciders gave up much faster; they lasted 28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect.”

Now, think about your eating habits: how often are you good all day long, only to be derailed late at night watching TV? This infographic from Massive Health shows just this pattern with actual data: the later it gets, the more junk we eat.

Decision Fatigue in the Law

Decision fatigue can affect you professionally – for example, here’s something you might want to know about judges that came from the same article cited above:

A study followed eight parole judges in Israel. Their default action is to deny parole to people, so if they don’t make a decision, the con stays in prison. Cases are presented randomly and take on average 6 minutes each. Overall, parole is granted approximately 35% of the time, but researchers found that the proportion of parole increased to 65% right after a meal. For two hours preceding a meal, approval rate drops steadily to about zero before the meal.

Take it from a baby: when you’re hungry you’re more difficult to deal with.

So How Do We Keep Our New Year’s Resolutions?

Now back to resolutions: knowing what we know, how can we hack our brains to stick with it?

1) Be conscious of decision fatigue. Understand that you’re more likely to cave later in the day, and the more cognitive load you’ve been under, the more likely you are to fall off the wagon. I would advise you to stop making decisions but professionally that would be disastrous.

2) Snack periodically throughout the day. Learn from the cranky Israeli judges and keep your glucose levels consistent by regular consumption – ideally on apples, grapefruit, yogurt, popcorn, carrots, bananas, or other healthy and easy-to-eat snacks. Nuts have a lot of calories so watch out. Don’t do what I did and eat a pound of cashews a day.

What about you? What have you found encourages permanent adoption of your new habits?