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Why you can't rely on willpower to keep your resolutions

What is the ultimate motivational tool? Write your own eulogy, suggests Richard Wiseman, the author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, out this month by Random House Canada.

Deciding how you want to be remembered will help you achieve your goals, he says.

The British psychologist has plenty of advice for New Year's and its inevitable resolution-making. He believes the self-help industry has over-complicated things - and that change can come without a lot of time invested (hence the book's title).

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When it comes to dieting, for example, Mr. Wiseman refers to a number of studies on behaviour and offers some simple techniques as part of a larger look at motivation. Some sound familiar, but not for the reasons we've heard before. For example, he advises that you eat more slowly as the meal progresses, not just to help your body feel full but because it gives the illusion of having eaten more. Use tall, narrow glasses and small bowls and dishes because your mind will actually believe you are getting a full portion. And forget about those 100-calorie packages: Studies show that all they do is give you a false sense of control.

Do New Year's resolutions ever really work?

My work shows that about 90 per cent of people fail to keep them because they just rely on willpower. In the book I give lots of tips on how best to keep them, such as telling your friends what it is that you hope to achieve.

Why don't the traditional methods at the heart of so many other self-help books work?

Because they are not based on science. So an author might make them up, but there is no guarantee that they work. Worst still, they rob people of the notion that they can change their lives.

What, historically, are people who want to change doing wrong?

Well, take visualization. Lots of books tell you to visualize your perfect self and thus increase your motivation. As I explain in 59 Seconds, this is wrong. You need to visualize what you need to do to achieve your goal, not achieving the goal. The same is true of praising children. Lots of parenting books tell you to praise achievement when in reality you are better off praising effort.

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What mistakes do people make when faced with a major decision?

Usually it is an issue of over-thinking. Don't rush into things but do be aware of which options make you feel excited rather than can be justified on a rational level.

You believe that assessing personality, our own and others, is actually quite a simple process. Are we able to significantly adjust our personality traits - reduce anxiety or pessimism for example - to improve ourselves? Or are we fundamentally stuck with ourselves?

About 50 per cent of our personalities are genetic and so not open to change. It is not clear how much the remainder can be modified, but the key point is that by understanding ourselves and others, we are better able to gain insight into behaviour and thinking.

Why does common sense always seem to fail intelligent people when it comes to self- improvement?

Because IQ has nothing to do with self-control. Self-control is a wonderful skill, and can be developed, and in the book I give some exercises that people can carry out with their children to encourage the trait. ... Also, people's lives are not perfect and so there is always an audience for anything that tells them that they can be happier.

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Procrastination is a major problem for a lot of people. So is stress. One would seem to cause the other. Is that the case, and what can we do to fix it?

Just telling yourself that you are only going to spend 10 minutes on the task in hand is a great way of overcoming procrastination - after starting it, you will initiate a psychological urge to continue.

What has your work taught you about the human race?

That people are great at fooling themselves into believing what they want to believe.

Shawna Richer is a Toronto-based writer.

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