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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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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?


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Something to Consider before you make your New Year’s Resolution

I don’t know about you but in the past, when it came to sticking to my New Year’s resolution, I’d usually come unstuck around February time (the beginning, not the end). Not great going really. I’d start the year with such enthusiasm for my new fitness regime with my plan of action all mapped out, only for it to fizzle out at when I realised just how much effort it required. I used all the usual excuses to justify giving up on my resolution, “I’ve got too much on at work”, “I’m too broke” or “I’m naturally more motivated in the summer, I’ll start then instead”.

The fact of the matter was, when it came to the inevitable sacrifices I would have to make to achieve my desired level of fitness: cutting back on socialising to pay for aerobics classes, getting up earlier to make time for a run or getting myself out of the house when it was dark and cold outside, I just wasn’t willing to tolerate the discomfort that sacrifice entails.

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t commit to resolutions you don’t feel passionately about because I believe there are mitigating circumstances where you will commit to a New Year’s resolution you don’t feel particularly excited about. Giving up smoking is one example; you want to give up so that you’ll live long enough to see your children grow up but actually, you really enjoy it. It’s going to be tough.

My advice for staying on track with your New Year’s resolution is once you’ve established what your resolution will be, anticipating times of discomfort and planning for them are just as important as planning the steps you need to take to fulfil your goal. Think about the last time you achieved a goal and ask yourself these questions: Was it easy? What did you give up to achieve it? How did it feel to give those things up? How did you get through the discomfort? How did you feel when you achieved your goal? If you’re a very organised type who writes an action plan for how you’re going to achieve your New Year’s resolution, then include what comforts you anticipate giving up to achieve your goal and what will you do to help yourself tolerate them when confronted by them.

How about you? What past resolutions have you made and what tips would you give others for overcoming obstacles?

Good luck and remember:

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
– Elbert Hubbard