We start our New Year or Monday mornings off with good intentions – we are going to lose weight, stop smoking, organize our closets and train for that 5K. But by the end of the week your plastic bins for organizing are still in the trunk of your car, your new running shoes tossed in the back of the closet and you have chewed so much Nicorette you decide it’s cheaper to just start smoking again.
What happened to all those good intentions?
A common answer is, “Well I just lack willpower”. You are right – but not for the reasons we often attribute to ourselves, such as laziness or lack of desire to truly make a change.
There are two important things you should know about willpower:
- Willpower is a finite resource – meaning you can exhaust your supply. When we exert our effort in one area we have less willpower to focus on another.
- Willpower is like a muscle – it has to be strengthened.
Why is willpower important?
Willpower makes what you want to happen, happen. Willpower staves off the lack of self-control which can lead to bad habits, addictions, conflict with relationships and your work, etc. Willpower helps overcome inertia. When we see ourselves as lacking willpower and failing at our intentions our self-respect plummets and we then do nothing or we replace action with fantasy. (One day when I lose those 30 pounds…)
Let’s talk first about willpower and its finiteness nature. I will use a personal example here. When I have had a tough mental day at work the last thing I want to do is come home and think about anything. I am exhausted. I am sure you have experienced that mental exhaustion as well. I am too tried to think about dinner, even though I am starving. My brain is basically refusing to think anymore so I look at the easy options for dinner. A drive-thru or binging on that box of Moose Tracks ice cream I have in my freezer. This is a perfect example of using up all my willpower (at work) so that when I have another area I need to focus on (dinner) I can’t.
Next willpower is a muscle that you can exhaust just like lifting weights to the point of muscle failure. Researchers at the University of Hamilton in Ontario discovered that in just the same way we can exhaust a muscle (and therefore temporarily weaken it) the same thing happens to our willpower.
It’s important to understand that willpower is very similar to physical strength in that:
- Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset
- Willpower is limited (just like muscle power)
- Willpower is trainable (just like muscle power)
How can you train and strengthened your willpower to maximize its capacity? I have seven tactics that will help you do just that.
Be careful how and where you spend your willpower. New Year’s resolutions are the time we typically go gangbusters. Gym memberships are bought, work-out clothes purchased and we head off to the gym with our good intentions in tow. We work out for 45 minutes, are exhausted and head home to ravage our fridge. We repeat this cycle for maybe a couple of weeks before we give up all together. Don’t do that. Instead do this:
Start small. In my breaking bad habits webinar I emphasize, several times, the need to build up to the level we want to achieve. I ran a half-marathon. Do you think I woke up one day and said, “Hey I am going to run 13.1 miles today?” No – I had been running for a year and a half and training for about three months. Start small means if you want to develop strength and can’t do 50 pushups, do one. Then when you have conquered one, do three pushups and so on.
I know what you are saying. “One pushup! What good will that do me?” What good will exhausting yourself and quitting all together do? Not much right? So start small.
Control your exposure to those who suck the life right out of you. In fact, get them out of your life completely, if you can. Using your capacity to deal with individuals who try to drag you down into their drama or neurosis depletes your strength.
Make a plan. If you use all your willpower up and it’s dinner time we tend to binge on all the wrong foods. When you know you have a lot of work that’s going to take up tons of your mental energy, find a way to schedule in 10 minutes walks or 5 minutes of meditation or deep breathing.
Eat food that is good for you. Exerting willpower lowers your blood glucose levels. Since glucose is the same fuel that powers your muscles, using willpower literally fatigues the body. Research shows we can up our willpower by taking a big old gulp of sugar but that leads to the infamous sugar crash. Limit or better yet, remove insulin-raising carbohydrates and sugary foods from your diet. You’ll find that when you do exert willpower, you’ll lose less glucose.
Find your core values. When we have a path we are on it’s easier to stay there if we know that what we are doing at that moment is a core value. When you determine what your core values are then you are less likely to act on impulse. When we do things impulsively we stop thinking and start acting on emotionally driven instincts. I work with women all the time who tell me they know what their core values are. However, when we go through my exercise of finding them and figuring out just how much a part of their life their values really are, they are always surprised to find the exercise harder than they expected.
Stop being a perfectionist. When you think something has to be completely perfect or it’s a failure you use up so much willpower. You are depleting your resources trying to control things you can’t possibly control. Life is beautiful that way. You never know what the next second will bring. Stop trying to control life and just enjoy it.
Boosting your willpower is a combination of knowing that you can deplete your willpower but you can also strengthen and train your willpower using the seven tips outlined here. Just as with most things in life, being able to use the full capacity of your willpower to accomplish your goals is a process.
Shelly is a personal development strategist and founder of The Rescue Yourself Project helping women over 40 step into their unique selves so they can create a life they love! A few years ago, she found herself living a life that wasn’t of her making. Deciding that wasn’t what she wanted she ran away from home and spent eight months “re-branding” herself. Today Shelly helps women find their unique selves by becoming experts about their values, strengths, passions, goals and purpose so they can design a life they love.