Almost all of us want to change some part of our lives. Yet less than half of us who want to make a change actually succeed. And the number one thing we blame for our failure is our own lack of willpower.
If a study of rankings on the VIA Character Strengths Survey is any indication, most people rank low in the self-control department. If you’re short on willpower, you’ll be happy to know that recent research has revealed a host of strategies on how to power up your self-control.
Advice on boosting willpower falls into three basic categories. First, it addresses the best ways to structure your goals. Secondly, it deals with good strategies for building your self-control. And third, it provides counsel on how to cope with temptation.
When a goal is well-structured, it takes less willpower to reach it. What makes a willpower-friendly goal? Three things:
- First, it’s short range rather than far off into the future. If the change you’re hoping to make is a big one, or one that will involve many steps over a long period of time, break it down into smaller parts. This is kaizen, or the baby-step method, put into practice. It helps build your willpower by requiring less of it at a time, and the little successes that you achieve along the way bolster your confidence in your ability to stick with your plan.
- Secondly, willpower-friendly goals are more about learning or getting better at something than about achieving an end. As you change your patterns, you are actually building new neural pathways in your brain. It’s learning how to be the change you’re working to make. Understanding this helps you stick with the process rather than thinking that you’re making a do or die effort. And it lets you view your setbacks as valuable learning experiences.
- And finally, willpower-friendly goals are about something you’re working to add to your life instead of something you’re working to eliminate.
That doesn’t mean you can’t set a goal to stop smoking or to lose weight. It just means that you’ll find it easier if you think about those desired results a little differently. Instead of saying “I’m going to stop smoking,” for example, try thinking about your desired result as learning to live smoke-free. Instead of losing weight, what you’re aiming for is to learn to live a more active, healthier lifestyle.
Strategies for Stronger Self-Control
Know Your Whys. Once your goal is set, take some time to explore the reasons why you want to achieve it. Why does it matter to you? How is it going to make your life easier or happier or more meaningful? How will you feel once you have achieved it? When you’re in touch with the real reasons for wanting it, you can review them in moments when your self-control is at a low point to give yourself a boost.
Create Realistic Optimism. Expect to achieve your goal; be optimistic about it. But be realistic, too. Look ahead at the possible obstacles you’ll face and imagine yourself toughing it out as you overcome them. People who are aware that challenges await them are more likely to overcome them than people who expect smooth sailing. So know in advance that you will face some rough patches on your path and make up your mind that you will make it through them.
Rest and Rebuild. We know now that willpower comes in limited daily quantities. It’s sort of like drawing water from a well. After you have used what’s available, you need to rest and let it replenish. That’s important to know so that you can plan for low periods as your day goes on or when you have used a lot of energy accomplishing tasks that required mental or physical exertion.
Mind Your Glucose Levels. We also know that you can extend the amount of willpower available to you by maintaining good levels of glucose in your body. Glucose fuels your brain and is used up by acts of self-control. Nibbling on protein and complex carbs throughout the day will help keep your glucose levels stabile. But in a pinch, you can give yourself an emergency boost by drinking a few ounces of fruit juice.
Cheat. You “cheat” a little simply by refusing to believe that you have used up your day’s supply! Some research shows that people who didn’t believe that willpower comes in limited daily quantities were able to keep going toward a goal longer than people who did believe it.
Practice. Like a muscle, self-control is strengthened through exercise. Studies show that “if you do anything that requires self-regulation, then that makes it easier for you to have self-regulation in everything.”
Dealing with Temptation
Nobody succeeds in resisting temptation all the time, but you can increase your odds of success in a lot of ways. If you do give in, try to accept that you’re still mastering your goal. Acknowledging your temporary weakness and accepting it is much kinder – and helpful – than beating yourself up about it. When you put yourself down, you increase your stress levels, further undermining the self-control that you’re trying to build. Instead, comfort yourself by remembering times that you have been successful at things in the past. Look at your strengths and skills and talents and remind yourself that you have a lot going for you.
Plan in Advance
The best way to deal with temptation is by avoiding it in the first place. Do what you can to clear your environment of anything that might trigger it. If you want to learn to eat healthier, rid your cupboards of sugary, fatty snacks and replace them with healthy nibbles. If you want to be smoke-free, get rid of your ashtrays.
Create positive reminders of what you want to accomplish. Develop affirmations. Keep a book of inspirational quotes handy. Make a vision board. Set out pictures that remind you of your goal.
Come up with some rewards you can give yourself when you succeed in resisting temptation – and give them when you do. Do the same with little punishments you can give yourself when you fail. Sometimes realizing that you’ll have to do a dreaded household chore, for example, is enough to get you to stand strong.
Try the “Wanting What I Want to Want” method. Ask yourself how you can make yourself want what you want even more, and then follow your own ideas. For example, if you want to exercise more, maybe you would find it more attractive if you could recruit a friend to go to the gym with you or accompany you on a walk.
Prepare yourself for inevitable temptations by developing an “if-then” plan. “If I’m tempted to . . . then I will . . .” When you have some strategies prepared for meeting temptation, you’ll already know what to do. You won’t have to use energy thinking something up while temptation is staring you in the face.
Here are some of the things you might put on your “then” list:
- Remind yourself giving in now will only make giving in easier next time. On the other hand, overcoming the temptation will be easier next time if you can overcome it now.
- Replace the temptation with something that will provide you with similar satisfaction. Have a piece of fruit instead of ice cream. Go for a brisk, oxygenating walk instead of reaching for a smoke.
- Distance yourself from the temptation. Remove yourself from the environment, or discard the tempting item. Or remove yourself from it in time by telling yourself that you can have or do the tempting thing in 10 minutes if you still want it then – and in that 10 minutes do your if-then process. ( Telling yourself that you can have it in the future if you still want it is a sneaky way of calming your cravings down. They feel heard, so to speak, so they stop shouting so loudly.)
- Drink a couple ounces of fruit juice. The glucose it provides will give your self-control a boost.
- Remind yourself of your reasons for wanting your goal. Studies show that thinking more abstractly is a powerful way to boost your self-control. Thinking about your “why” is a great way to do that. If your reasons escape you, try solving a few simple math problems instead.
- Affirm yourself. Remind yourself about the things that please you about yourself, such as a skill or talent, or about the things that you value. That might be a close friendship or the way you enjoy your family or a pet, or anything that you hold dear.
- Take a nap, or meditate. Both will help replenish your day’s supply of willpower.
Above all, keep trying. You can succeed. And every effort makes you stronger.
If you want support as you work toward making the changes that you would like to see in your life, let’s talk. As a life enhancement coach, I can provide you with motivating encouragement, clarity, helpful strategies, and the power of accountability to help you reach your goals. Sign up for a complementary session today and let’s get you on the road to new possibilities.
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If you enjoyed this article please pass it on. This is one in a continuing series of articles on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths. To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”
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