I heard a radio interview with Roy Baumeister, author of  Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, on NPR over the holiday weekend. Baumeister made some interesting comments about how to “use” willpower in order to stick to all those New Year’s resolutions or to achieve other goals.  So let’s kick off 2012 with a few of his suggestions on how to harness your self-control for success.

* You only have a limited amount of willpower. This means you have to be careful how you ration it. Trying to change five new behaviors simultaneously equates to doling out bits and pieces of willpower, as well as more rapidly depleting your “pool of power.”

SECRET FOR SUCCESS: Avoid multiple failures by conserving your willpower and focusing on one change/goal at a time.

* Willpower can be developed  like a muscle. Baumeister’s research with co-author John Tierney revealed that people can strengthen willpower through simple self-control activities such as sitting up straight, tracking daily food intake, saying “yes” instead of “yeah” or an other task that requires a mental effort.

SECRET FOR SUCCESS: Find small ways to exercise self-control to improve your willpower over all.

* Willpower can be overused and fatigued. Researchers refer to the process of exhausting one’s mental energy as “ego depletion.” When a person is experiencing ego depletion, it is more difficult to make decisions, focus attention, cope with frustration, resist cravings and apply effective self-control. Ego depletion can be avoided by limiting willpower drains and, surprisingly, Baumeister found that a (modest!) sugary pick-me-up can re-energize a depleted ego.

SECRET FOR SUCCESS: Not everything has to be a test. To avoid unnecessary willpower drains, put snack foods out of sight, plan your daily meals and exercise ahead of time, stay away from vending machines, avoid extreme dieting, etc. Also, confront your biggest challenges when you are fresh and energized, such as hitting the gym first thing in the morning.

For many people, willpower seems to be an elusive character trait, possessed by a few lucky souls. Baumeister’s research and suggestions demonstrate that by understanding the dynamics of self-control, we can all become more successful in whatever goals we undertake.