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11 ways to improve your willpower

Sweet Temptation

So, how is your New Year’s resolution going? Are your abs ripped, your hair glossy and your skin glowing just like the magazine promised when you began their ‘14 Day Kick-Start-Your-New-Year Plan’? No? All you had to do was reduce your daily calorie intake to the requirements of 6-year-old child, drink 5 buckets of water a day, run 100km a week and abstain from drinking alcohol for eternity! Oh well, welcome to the world of being normal!

If your New Year’s resolution isn’t going quite as well as you hoped, maybe this will help. A better understanding of how your willpower works might just be the answer to put you on the right track again.

Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than writing your goals down, getting your friends to pat you on the back and dangling a carrot on a stick to get you where you want to be. Before you reach your exercise goal, or whatever goal you’re aiming for, you need to exercise your willpower muscle. Yes, apparently you can exercise your willpower like a muscle and from personal experience, I’m inclined to agree.

According to the psychologist Roy Baumeister, we normal folk don’t have an infinite resource of willpower. It gets used up on other things as we go about our day. Psychologists call this ‘using up’ of willpower, ‘ego depletion’. Following further tests carried out by Baumeister and other psychologists, it has been found that there are various steps which can be taken to help you build up the strength of your willpower. So below is my list of the best ways to strengthen it.

Remove temptation
Resisting things you want uses up willpower (this was one of Baumeister’s main findings). If you remove them completely, you won’t have to resist them! If you’re trying to pay off debts, leave your credit card and home and take a fixed sum of cash out with you so you can’t overspend. Don’t keep unhealthy treats in your home! If you’re not using up willpower resisting these things, you’ll have more willpower for all the other things you want to do.

Mindfulness
“But I can’t stop thinking about chocolate and now there’s none in the house – this is agony – I want it even more now!” Mindfulness is the art of focussing your attention on there here and now and helps you to disconnect from your thoughts. It’s said that just 10 minutes of mindfulness practice a day helps you to train your brain to stay focussed. A mindfulness technique is to sit on a hard-back chair, with your feet on the flat floor and your hands on your lap. Start by focussing on your breath moving in and out of your nose, and your belly rising and falling. Next, starting with your feet and working up to your head, focus on where you feel pressure. When you get to the top of your head, reverse the process back to your feet. This is called a body scan. Every time you feel temptation, perform a brief body scan.

Make time for happiness
It has also been found that improved mood helps raise willpower (it’s not rocket science really). Make time in your day for things that lift your spirits. Make a play list for your iPod of songs for these moments. Carry a small album with photos of happy times with friends and family to look at when you need a boost. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it makes you smile. My friend made me a mix tape when I was feeling down, it began with Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 (my guilty pleasure): it never failed to make me smile!

Regulate your blood sugar
Low blood sugar also depletes your willpower. Try looking up some low GI recipes to keep your blood sugar regulated throughout the day or drink a glass of juice a short time before you take part in an activity the requires extra willpower.

Prioritise your least favourite task first
Or in the words of Brian Tracy, “If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.” Doing something you don’t like or something you find boring is a guaranteed way to zap your willpower so do it first. Preferably in the morning when our reserves of willpower are higher. This is when I prioritise exercise because I know after a long day at work, I’m just not going to be in the mood for the treadmill.

Perform unrelated habits
Get into the habit of getting into habits. It sounds strange but if you get into the habit of doing simple, unrelated tasks, it becomes easier to make other things a habit. Try it and see. For me, I’m not good at drinking as much water as I should. It’s not too much of a challenge to keep a bottle of water on my desk and make sure it’s all gone by the end of the day. So that’s the habit I’m practicing at the moment.

Accept setbacks
Don’t beat yourself up about falling off the wagon. Everyone does it at some point. Congratulate yourself on being normal and carry on as you were before. Feeling guilty lowers your mood which will also deplete your willpower

Reduce stress
You’ve probably got the gist of this now! Performing stressful tasks requires willpower so as your stress levels rise, your willpower lowers. Practice mindfulness, go for a walk in your lunch break or listen to calming music. Do whatever suits you!

Be in-tune with your motivational rhythm
We all have our own motivational rhythm with its peaks and troughs. Notice when your naturally more motivated and make use of these peak times to get things done. For me, and like most of us, it’s first thing in the morning when reserves of willpower are high.

Trust the process
Trust that you will gain more willpower the more you use it. Remember this when you find yourself flagging. Keep a journal to talk about whatever it is that your starting. Record how motivated you feel before you perform the task and how you feel afterwards. Give your motivation a level out of 10. At the end of the week, see how much your willpower improves. Just keep going!

What’s your carrot?
Oh okay, maybe carrots are helpful! What are you doing it all for? Keep a clear image of the outcome in your mind. If you can find a likeness of what you want in a real picture then use that. For me, I’m saving to go and see my sister and her family in New Zealand but I love to shop! I have a picture of my niece on my desk and every time I’m tempted to do a bit of internet shopping, I look at her and am reminded that I don’t need a new pair of shoes that badly!

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Is unemployment really the issue?

On the 2nd January, I wrote a post called What’s the point?  It was in response a news item I’d seen on the BBC website that morning which quoted that a large number of young people the UK feel they have nothing to live for.  It cited unemployment as the main contributing factor and stated that young people’s mental health was suffering as a consequence.  On reading around other sources and from watching the news that evening, it seemed that young people in the UK feel their lives lack meaning because a without a job they have no reason to get up in the morning and without a job they weren’t able to contribute to society.  I also had feedback that young people feel they have nothing to live for because they aren’t able to afford a house or put money by for a pension.

In my post, I felt I was being sympathetic and suggested that the reason  young people’s mental health was suffering was because they are wasting too much of their time and energy focussing on one future-oriented goal, i.e. home ownership and need to set themselves present-oriented goals to give them satisfaction in the here and now.  On reflection I would like to elaborate on that post as I feel I did not say everything that needed to be said.   What I feel is required, is a big virtual slap in the face for those who feel the Government and unemployment is to blame for young people’s ‘suffering’ mental health.

Despite leaving university 10 years ago with a first class BA degree, I am still not in a position where I have the disposable income to put aside for a deposit on a house, pay off my student loan or put any extra money towards a pension.  I have also suffered with mental health problems on and off for most of my life.  So with that in mind, I think that I’m more than qualified to have the following opinion.

I am not a fan of the current Government (I used to be a teacher) but by holding them and the current financial climate solely to blame, we are neglecting the real cause of the report’s finding that young people feel they have nothing to live for.  What I suggest is to blame is a chronic lack of self-awareness, resilience and lateral thinking amongst some young people.  It is not the lack of ownership and disposable income that causes mental suffering in this context, it is thoughts those young people have about their situation that causes their suffering.  It is their thoughts about what they ‘should’ have that cause their suffering.   It is their thoughts about what is ‘normal’ and what their entitled to that cause their suffering.  These thoughts need to change.

I would very much like to be able to own my own house without having to share part of it with the Government but just because my parents were able to (which they weren’t in my case) and my grandparents were able to, it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it or that it is the only way to achieve happiness in life.  By holding the demand that ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel successful’ or ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel happy’, or ‘I must own my own home because the children I plan to have need it’, young people are setting themselves up for despair because these are demands, they are rigid, they’re all or nothing.

I’m willing to bet good money that someone comments on this saying, ‘it’s not demanding to want to own your own home; it should be a basic right’.  If they do, it will illustrate my point beautifully that some young people are chronically lacking in self-awareness.  I’m going to repeat my point from my previous post.  If you place all your happiness on the condition you achieve one future-oriented goal that you may or may not achieve, you will feel miserable; it’s a given.  Carry on with this line of thinking and you will continue feel miserable until you hopefully buy a house in 20 years’ time. Do you honestly want to delay your happiness for that long?  Stop whining about and dwelling on what you can’t get in the future and focus more closely on what you could have now that brings you satisfaction and joy.  For me, this blog brings me satisfaction and joy. I wrote a post about my experience of overcoming anxiety.  One person commented that I’d given them hope and that’s all I need.  The fact that I’ve managed to give hope to one person in the world gives me enormous satisfaction in the here and now!  By blogging about my experience in the hope it will help others helps me find meaning in the adversity I’ve faced.  I’ve made a choice.  I could have been beaten by adversity but I’ve chosen to use it for my personal growth and to support others.

This brings me on to the chronic lack of resilience in some young people.  The self-pitying whining I’ve witnessed in the press is, quite frankly, embarrassing.  I feel embarrassed because there are people in Syria and other parts of the world who have no home, no belongings, have been separated from their families and live in fear of losing their own lives.  There are people who are living through the most horrific, barbaric and degrading adversity but they carry on.  They have no choice but to carry on because they only other option is to opt out of life altogether.  When I was a teacher, I witnessed this lack of resilience in the young children I taught; I saw their defeatist attitude towards the most minor setback.  I worked extremely hard to help children build their resilience; I believe it’s one of the most important qualities we can own in life.  I had to teach them from scratch that making mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to learn; some lessons are forgotten but never the ones where you’ve learnt from your mistakes.  I had to teach them about acceptance; that unfairness is a part of life we will experience our entire lives and sometimes even as adults, we can’t change the unfairness, we can only accept it.

Finally, I want to talk about the chronic lack of lateral thinking.  Young people of the UK, what brings you joy and satisfaction in the here and now and how can you use it in a creative way (I don’t mean creative in as in artistic.  I’m not asking you to draw a picture of yourself playing football or baking a cake)?

I’m going to do some spoon-feeding now, because from what I’ve witnessed, it may be needed.  If you love sport or exercise, why not start a team?  Why not organise lots of teams and start your own league?  Use Facebook and Twitter to publicise it.  Make links within your local sporting community and work together; you can find them on Facebook and Twitter!  Do it to raise money for charity.  If you don’t want to start an adult’s team or league, do it for local children.  If you don’t know how to organise it, then research it and find out.  Perhaps you can start a running club or start your own boot camp in the park (pool resources with friends) and don’t be under the illusion that it all takes money that you don’t have.  Nothing I’ve suggested so far requires any cash.  Are you a poet, a writer, an illustrator, a musician, a lover of fashion or technology? Get blogging and show off your ideas and share them with other people.  Follow other people’s blogs and see what ideas you could use; get inspired!  What would you like to do as a job?  Do you need to work for someone else?  Setting up your own website needn’t cost any more that £15 a month at the most and with social media, marketing is free.  If you keep hearing ‘no’ from employers, go out and do it yourself.  Don’t think you’re good enough?  Nothing ventured, is nothing gained.  It’s your choice but just have a go at exercising some lateral thinking!

Who do you blame when things go wrong?

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A few months ago, I attended a lecture given by Dr Raj Persaud, a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London. The subject of his lecture was motivation; a subject that links nicely to my post yesterday. Yesterday I spoke about the importance of considering the sacrifices you will need to make in the pursuit of your New Year’s resolution; if you want something badly enough, a good measure of your motivation is to think about what comforts you are willing to give up in order to achieve your goal.

Dr Persaud began his lecture by showing the audience a clip from Rocky Balboa (2006) in which Rocky’s son complains that sharing the ‘Balboa’ name has been difficult to live with and warns Rocky of the negative impact his impending fight will have on his own career. Rocky hits back at his son’s words with a humbling reminder of the virtues of personal responsibility and the importance of fighting on when things go wrong.

After we watched the clip, Dr Persaud explained that when it comes to motivation, there are two personality types: internalities and externalities. Individuals with internalities are those who are more likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at what they could have done differently. Individuals with externalities are those who are less likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at other individuals or events to blame.

Internalities, when exercising personal responsibility, have power.  They have power because if they find the fault with themselves, they can set about changing the fault, learn from their mistake and move forwards.

Externalities lack self awareness and the ability to exercise personal responsibility. By blaming other individuals or events, they are powerless as the ability to change these factors is outside their direct control. They will find themselves wallowing in self-pity and anger and will ultimately hold themselves back just as Rocky’s son would have done.

So when you face the first hurdle on your journey to fulfilling your New Year’s Resolution, or any goal for that matter (and you will face hurdles), think about which personality type you fit into: are you an internality or and externality?