4 Easy Tips for Building Will Power

Fancy ChocolateWhen you hear the phrase “will power” do you feel yourself sort of cringing inside?  Does your Inner Saboteur leap up to remind you that you have none? That it’s no use trying?

Well, good news!  Your Inner Saboteur is absolutely wrong.  According to willpower expert Kelly McGonigal, inside your very own brain there’s a whole complex system designed especially to keep you on the right track.  And you can actually build that system’s strength with only a tiny bit of effort.

Your Magical Pause and Plan Response

You’ve heard of the “fight or flight” response, right?  When your brain spots a threat in your environment, it automatically sends messages to your body to prepare it for action.

Well, it turns out that you have another automatic brain response that’s triggered when you’re about to do something that’s against your best interests, such as yelling at your boss, or putting a charge on your credit card when you’ve sworn off.  University of Kentucky professor Suzanne Sergerstrom calls it the “pause- and-plan response” response.

It gets activated when the threat to your well being isn’t something outside of you, but a conflict going on inside you between the short term satisfaction of an impulse and your long range good.

Instead of sending a rush of chemicals to your body, the pause and plan response directs resources to the decision-making part of your brain.  It works to calm you, giving you an opportunity to make a better choice and exercise self-control.

The pause and plan response isn’t, however, a super power.  All by itself, it won’t stop you from giving in to your impulses.  But it will give you a real edge—some space for making a deliberate choice.   And you can do a lot of things to ensure that when it points to right door, you have the willpower to walk through it.

Willpower Boosters

1. Tweak Your Health Habits

Everything you can do to enhance your overall health helps build your store of willpower.   Health is a state of dynamic ease, where you’re moving through life with an abundance of energy and a minimum of stress.  So consider giving some attention to the basics:  sufficient sleep, more wholesome nutrition, less junk food, adequate hydration and exercise.  All of these contribute to your ability to be more resilient and to experience less stress.  Use a little of your willpower to begin tweaking those areas that you may have been neglecting.

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

“Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making,” says Deborah Kotz in her article on willpower for US News.

Just sit quietly with your eyes closed and let your attention rest on your breathing.  You can focus on the way air enters and leaves your nostrils, or how your chest rises and falls, how your belly moves in and out, or to your whole body breathing.  When you notice that your attention has drifted to your thoughts, gently let them go and return your attention to your breathing.

McGonigal suggests that you begin practicing for 5 minutes one to three times a day, then building up to 15-30 minutes at a time once or twice a day.   If you do, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the pause and plan response with a clear, calm mind.

3. Know What You Want –  and Don’t Want

Knowing what you want to achieve and why you want it is a primary key to developing your willpower.  When you remember what’s important to you, and when the picture of what you want is clear in your mind, you’re more motivated to consider making the changes that will turn your dream into your reality.

Knowing what you want and value lets you become aware, too, of what you don’t want in your life any more.  And research shows, says Kotz, that when you think about the long-term consequences of doing the things you don’t want, you’re much more likely to resist the immediate temptation of a negative habit—like grabbing a gooey candy bar, lighting up that next cigarette, or putting that impulse item on your charge card.

Invest some time in creating vivid pictures of two possible futures for yourself—one where you move toward your ideal outcome, and one where you stay mired in your current habit.   Then flash the pictures alternately in your mind when the pause and plan response offers you a choice.

4. Share the Love

One of the most pleasurable ways to strengthen your ability to make right choices is to spread some love around.   Spending time with friends and loved ones increases our stores of happiness and well-being.  And doing an act of kindness for someone is one of the most powerful happiness-builders around.

When we’re happy, we’re not only less stressed, but our perspective broadens and we’re better able to see more possibilities for ourselves.   We’re better able to envision the positive consequences of choosing the better path for ourselves, and to take advantage of the pause and plan response it’s triggered in our brains.

A Yahoo health article  tells about a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that demonstrated additional strength and physical endurance in subjects who either donated a dollar to charity or imagined themselves doing good deeds.

How about that!  Even thinking about doing something nice for someone else makes you stronger.

Want to get started on building your willpower right now?   Let a friend know about the pause and plan response.  It’s easy.  Just click one of the buttons below.


6 Positive Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism

blue ribbon medalAll of us have some drops of perfectionism running through our veins.  We love to be winners, to take the prize, to hear the applause, to come in at the top of the list.  That aspiration to reach higher and to be the best we can be pushes us forward and urges us to grow.

But when the desire to excel turns into the need to be perfect, it robs us of our power.  In fact, it can stop us dead in our tracks, suck the joy from life, and keep us from growing at all.

The Pain of Perfectionism

How ironic—and sad!–that the very longing that stems from wanting to be the best can actually send our sense of self-worth into the pits and keep us from producing anything at all!  But that’s what happens when we fall prey to perfectionism.

When you’re caught in its grips, perfectionism leads you to:

  • Overemphasize your setbacks and shortcomings
  • Focus on and criticize flaws, mistakes and shortcomings in yourself and others
  • Believe that you’re inadequate, that you don’t measure up
  • Be immobilized by fear of both failure and success
  • Suffer from heightened stress, ill health and depression


Changing Mindsets: Being Good vs Getting Better

Heidi Halvorson, Ph.D., author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and a thought-leader in the field of motivational mindsets, has begun promoting awareness of the difference between a two mindsets that she calls “being good” and “getting better.”

Perfectionists tend to look at the world through the “being good” lens.  Their emphasis is on validating themselves—on proving how smart they are, how talented, how skilled, how good-looking, how successful.

When they take a class, people with a “be good” mindset want to get an A to prove how smart they are.  When they produce a great report at work, it’s to prove how talented they are.  When they work on their diets, it’s to look more attractive.

People who look at the world through the “getting better” mindset, on the other hand, see their goals as a way to develop their abilities and master new skills.  To them, the A in school means they learned a lot.  Writing the report at work gave them a chance to develop their talent.  Eating better improved their health.

It’s all a matter of where you put your attention, Halvorson says.  Are you looking for information about how you compare to others or to some external standard?  Or are you looking for information that you can use to improve yourself, seeing others as a source of learning and expertise?

What’s interesting about these two mindsets is the result they generate when times get tough.  People with “be good” mindsets get anxious and withdraw in the face of setbacks or failure.  People with “get better” mindsets roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The “get better” mindset allows people to be more cooperative with others, to be more responsive, sensitive and supportive, too. It allows people to see everyone as having value.   So they build more connections in the world, and keep gathering information that contributes to their own development and success.  All their experiences become fodder for their growth.

The good news is that you can teach yourself to switch lenses, to adopt the “getting better” mindset more frequently in your life.

Shelving the Perfectionist Lens

Your “be good” lenses can serve you well sometimes.  In some situations, a strong competitive spirit is exactly what you need.  But for the most part, you’ll enjoy life more, be open to a broader range of experiences, form more and better relationships, reach higher levels of success, be more motivated, and have more resilience when you look at the world through a “getting better” lens.

Here’s how:

1.    Strive for balance.  Nobody’s telling you to stop wanting things to be better.  Valid criticism has its place.  The key is to recognize that few errors are fatal.  While excellence is a worthy goal, in a whole lot of cases, good enough is good enough.  It really is okay to let the small stuff slide. Remember the Pareto Principle: “Of the things you do during your day, only 20 percent really matter. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results. Identify and focus on those things.”

2.    Become aware of your criticisms and complaints.    Becoming aware of an automatic behavior is always the first step to changing it.  Set an intention to notice when you’ve put on your critic’s hat.  Set up little triggers to help you remember it.  A couple years ago a whole “anti-complaint” movement swept the country where people wore a brightly colored wrist band to remind them not to complain.  Whenever they caught themselves complaining, the participants moved the band to the opposite wrist.  It was a great trigger.  You could try that.  Or just put sticky notes where you’ll see them.

3.    Try asking yourself positive affirmative questions: “Why am I noticing so many good things now?”  “Why am I seeing so many strong points now?”  “Why am I appreciating myself so much now?

4.     Work on boosting your positivity ratio.   When you notice that you’re focusing on mistakes, faults, or shortcomings, stop.  Just stop, midstream.  That’s a first step—and it may take some practice to master.  Your critical focus is a habit and breaking it means stepping outside your comfort zone.   But you’ll be trading that small discomfort for the big rewards of a broader, happier, more productive world.  Then, as soon as you halt your critical statement or thought, look for three good things, three strengths, three qualities you can appreciate or enjoy.

5.    Exercise your self-compassion.   Remind yourself that it’s human to make mistakes. How you do is not who you are.   You, like all the rest of us, are learning as you go.  And that’s not only okay, it’s healthy and wonderful and leads to a richer, greater life.

If you need to be perfect at something, become a perfect experiencer.  Let yourself feel the whole range of human emotions—even the disappointment of failure, or loss, or of only winning the bronze.  There’s real joy to be found in letting go of perfectionism.  Let yourself experience appreciation for our incompleteness, to be touched by how hard we try, to be thrilled by the process of mastering and excited about becoming more each day.  Be in the journey.  It’s where the treasures are.

If you have overcome perfectionism, leave a comment and share with us how you did it or how your life has changed.



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Overcoming Overwhelm: The Mountain and the Path

Busy Businessman
There’s no getting around it: overwhelm hurts!  You feel like you’re drowning in a sea of pressing tasks.  Your confidence and self-esteem are nowhere to be found.  You’re tired, and on edge, and you don’t even know where to start.

If that’s you, b-r-e-a-t-h-e!  Help is on the way!

First of all, know that you’re not alone.  Overwhelm is one of the most common complaints I hear from my coaching clients these days.   And it’s not just these high-achievers.  Some days it seems that everybody I talk with—friends, neighbors, family members, people at the gym—is griping that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for all they have to get done.

Second, maybe because the complaints about overwhelm are so universal, dozens and dozens of fixes are available.  I’ll share the best of them with you in soon.  But before we look at ways to handle the effects of feeling overwhelmed, let’s dig into its cause.

Understanding Overwhelm

At its core, overwhelm is a perception that we’ve lost control, that we’re being swept along by a rush of events and demands and they’re threatening to totally engulf us.  

That’s why it makes us feel so anxious.  We’re afraid of losing our very identities to a cascade of external events.

Ironically, the people who are most prone to it are people with generally high levels of confidence in their ability to perform.   They thrive on achievement and love to be active.  They get satisfaction from being helpful to others, to serving and supporting their employers, family members and communities.  They take pride in their abilities to get things done.  And then one day, things just get out of hand.  The list of commitments and obligations suddenly looms as large as Mt. Everest.

But regardless of how it happens or to whom, overwhelm is rarely due to the number or complexity of tasks in and of itself.   It’s the way we’re viewing them.

Looking at the Mountain

I can tell right away when somebody is in a state of overwhelm.  Not only are they agitated, but they quickly launch into reciting huge lists of everything they have to get done.

I call this  syndrome “Looking at the Mountain” because they’ve piled their list of tasks into one big towering heap so high that it threatens to eclipse the sun.  And they think they’re supposed to reach the summit by four o’clock this afternoon–or by Friday, at the latest.

Now to be honest with you, for a few people, the overwhelm is pretend.   The person with Pretend Overwhelm might be listing everything she has to do in order to motivate herself to get going, or, in a subtle way, to remind herself how extraordinary she is to dare such a daunting agenda.  Her agitation is more excitement than fear, and more often than not, she’s come to me only to get her bearings before she sets off to tackle her tasks.  If you’re in that category, take a breath, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!

But for most, the mountain looks very real—and frightening.

Seeing the Path

But remember: overwhelm is a perception.  It’s only a thought, an idea that we hold in our minds.  Like all thoughts, it triggers emotions to match itself.  Then the emotions trigger more thoughts.

“I have to climb this big mountain,” you say to yourself.  Your body feels pressure and anxiety, and your brain, interpreting and justifying your feelings, says, “Oh!  You should be scared! Just look how high it is!  You’ll never make it.  You’re going to fall, you loser,” and it triggers more emotions.

The trick is to interrupt the thought-emotion cycle.  First, you need to take a few deep, slow breaths and consciously direct your body to relax.  Then present it with different thoughts.

You may, for instance, remind yourself that you have climbed many mountains before, and some of them were much taller than this one.  If you can deeply relax and vividly recall a past success, all the better.

Then, instead of looking at the entire mountain, bring your attention to the single steps you’ll be taking to get to the top, choose the first one you’ll take,  and keep your focus on just that one that you’ll take right now.

While a lot of motivators and time-management gurus will tell you to do the hardest or biggest things first, when you’re in overwhelm, that’s often not the best advice.  Take a few small steps first; do a couple of the easy things.  That will get you in motion and help you create some momentum.  Plus it will help you regain your sense of control.

So begin by taking time to physically relax, to breathe, to release the tension from your body.  Then pick a couple easy tasks and get them done.

Fixes for Overwhelm

The best way both to prevent and to overcome overwhelm is to find a system for organizing your tasks and identifying your  priorities that fits your personal style and works for you.

There’s no one-size-fits-all system that works for everybody.  It takes a little bit of trial and error to evolve one that’s right for you.  But the key is to DO the trial part.  Choose a method and give it a fair shot.  See if you can stick with it for a couple weeks.   Keep the parts that work for you.

Christine Kane offers some good suggestions in her article 5 Practical Secrets to Peaceful Productivity.  And  Kathy Baker’s method for getting focused on your priorities is solid, too.

If you’re in overwhelm right now, consider their methods emergency first aid and apply them immediately.

If your need isn’t urgent, but one that you encounter more often than you like, start designing a task and priority management method right now.  You’ll find a list of 106 truly excellent suggestions from achievers of every stripe in a wonderful article from Stephanie LH Calahan at Calahan Solutions.  I guarantee you’ll find several that appeal to your personal style.

In the meantime, just breathe and pick one simple thing to do.  It’s not really a mountain, and all the control you could possibly need is already in your hands.
And remember, your friends deal with overload, too.  Do them a kindness, and pass this article along. Just click one of the sharing buttons below.




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Resilience 101: Busting Through the Backslider Blues

Contemplative Girl

“Resilience to the rescue!” the delivery man cried cheerfully, wheeling his stack of freshly printed bounce-back pamphlets through my door.

“Splendid!”  I said, “You’re just in time.”

We are, of course, two weeks into the New Year as I write this, and I’ve noticed that a whole slew of bright, shiny goals are already falling by the wayside.

Whether you’re one of the millions who are beginning to lose your grip on those new possibilities, or whether you’re reading this mid-year in the hope of finding some way to deal with a setback, you’ve come just in time.

Let’s read through these resilience guidelines together.

Join the Pack

“Congratulations!” the introduction says.  “You are a winner!”

Here’s how it continues:

Only the most daring humans set goals—the ones who believe in new possibilities.   Anybody can stay in a rut.  It takes gumption to reach for new heights.

I know.  You’re not feeling like a winner, given that you think you already failed.   But failing and quitting are two different things, and you wouldn’t be reading this if some part of you didn’t want to keep on keeping on.

Setbacks are just potholes in the road, not dead ends. Every winner who reaches a worthwhile goal has stumbled into a few of them along the way.  Every last one.  So you are in superb company.

You know what winner’s say about them?  They say they make for great stories when you get to the end of the road.  They give you bragging rights.  Sometimes, they say, the mis-takes are the best parts of the movie.

They raise their glasses to each other and toss around  truthful old clichés about resilience:

  • Everything worth doing is worth doing poorly at the start.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Success is getting up when you fall.
  • Where there’s a will there’s a way.

They talk about old Edison and how he discovered ten thousand ways not to make a light bulb.

So look your setback squarely in the face, see what it has to teach you and move on.  A road is no less a road just because it has a few stumbling places on it.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

The only thing more humiliating than falling into a pothole is to have them find you sprawled out on the road sobbing over one.   Okay, it hurt.  Maybe it cost you time.  Maybe you dropped a fortune in it.  Maybe it temporarily muddied your hope and your pride.

Hurt is real.  Be kind to yourself now.  Be tolerant and loving.   Say the things to yourself that your most beloved friend would say to you.  Give yourself a little space for healing and a little time for your resilience to rebuild.

Soothe yourself.  Relax with some good music, a long walk in a beautiful place, a heartfelt talk with an understanding friend, some prayer or meditation.

And when your strength has returned, carry on.

Take a New Tack

Once you have collected yourself, take some time to refresh the vision that inspired your goal in the first place.   Think about how you will feel once you’ve succeeded.   How will your life be different?  How will it look?  What will you hear?  How will it feel?  Get clear on your Why’s.  Write them down.

Then look at the What’s and the How’s.  What resources and strengths can you bring to your task?  What’s the next best step you can take?  Brainstorm a dozen ways to overcome your obstacles.  Be playful and creative as you think up possible solutions.  Then pick the best one and give it all you’ve got.

Remind yourself of your past successes.  Picture yourself at your best. Write some affirmations to support you, or even better, write some power-packed Positive Affirmative Questions.

Think about how your confidence will have grown when you reach your goal, how much you will have grown as a human being.

Stay on Track

Forewarned is forearmed, they say.  Now that you know what one kind of stumbling block looks like, you’re in a fabulous position to prevent similar ones from grabbing you again.  Develop an if-then strategy:

“If I run into such and such (whatever triggered your fall) again, then I will . . .”

If I go out to dinner with friends, then I will make up my mind ahead of time to forego the breadsticks and potatoes and happily sip water with lemon while they’re eating dessert.

If I’m tempted to reach for my credit card, then I’ll picture it turning to flame and burning my future.

Let your imagination explore what other kinds of things could trip you up and plan if-then strategies for them.

Make a game of coming up with a quick list of ways you could deal with any temptation that might come along.  Be playful, but earnest, in coming up with possible ways around any obstacles to your success.

Enlist the support of others who share your goals, or of friends and family who can cheer you on.  Join forums or clubs, or start a master mind.

And Keep on Keeping On

You have a whole lifetime of positive experiences to draw on.  And every single one of them has bolstered your ability to bounce back.  Positivity does that.

I think it was Henry Ford who observed that whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.

The truth is that you have the power to choose.  And nobody and nothing can take that from you.
So choose to get over those setbacks, to get up and give it another try.  It’s a great dream you have there, afterall.  It deserves the very best you have to offer.

And so do you.

Probably somebody else you know needs a little boost right now, too.  Why not give yourself a little karma-nudge, “Like” this article and pass it on?


1  Cherry, Kendra,  “10 Ways to Become More Resilient

2 Wilner, Joe, “How to Shift to a More Positive Mindset

3 Halvorson, Heidi Grant, Ph.D., Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals


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The Excellence of Effort

Mountain HikingSeventh grade is tough.  Suddenly you’re thrust from the comfort and security of a well-known environment where you were the big fish into the new, sophisticated world of junior high school.

Even if you have done pretty well in school until now, if you’re like most kids, your first report card is going to be a shock.  Your math scores, if you’re normal, are going to plummet.

Psychological research and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, set out to see if she could change that.

She and her team went to several New York City public schools and separated the new seventh graders into two groups.  For half an hour once a week for eight weeks, they taught the kids about the way our brains work.

One group, the control group, learned about various brain functions, such as memory.  The other group learned how experience and genuine effort can make brains smarter.  Intelligence, they found out, was like a muscle.  The more work you give it to do, the stronger it gets.

Over the course of the school year, the math scores of the control group fell.  But the kids who had learned that working your brain makes it smarter got higher scores. 

Just showing them that it was possible to improve your learning ability motivated them to work hard enough to prove to themselves—and everybody else—that it was true.

Plenty of research since then backs up the hypothesis that Dweck had set out to prove: Whether we see intelligence (and other personal traits, too) as fixed or changeable significantly impacts our lives in surprising and counterintuitive ways.

The Flaws of the Fixed Mindset

If you believe that you were born with a fixed helping of intelligence, or of the ability to write or do math or be sociable, you’re what psychologists call an “entity theorist” and you’ll hold different kinds of values, make different kinds of choices, and set different kinds of goals than the “incremental theorists,” people who believe these traits can be developed and grown.

In her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Stanford psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., says entity theorists turn away from challenging goals.  Because they believe they are stuck with a fixed amount of ability, they only go for things they’re pretty sure they can do.  They take it for granted that there are some skills they can never possess or some things they could never be good at doing.

Yet we promote entity theorizing in some very counter-intuitive ways.

Suppose, for example, that as you were growing up everybody told you, “You’re so smart!”   Would you be willing to tackle any challenge that came your way?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.  If you failed at something, after all, it would show that you weren’t as smart as you thought—or that others believed you were.  And that would be embarrassing, maybe even crushing.

Entity theorists (who see traits are fixed), believe there are limits to what they can achieve, that abilities are set and no improvement is possible.  They believe that talent creates success without effort and give up when things seem difficult.

According to an article in New York Magazine, for example, a large percentage of gifted kids underestimate their abilities.  If math or spelling don’t come easily to them, they assume they just aren’t good at that subject and set it aside for something that is easy.

Kids “who think that innate intelligence is the key to success,” the article explains,” begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Most American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.   “But a growing body of research,” the New York Magazine article says, “strongly suggests it might be the other way around.  Giving kids the label ‘smart’ does not prevent them from underperforming.  It might actually be causing it.”

The Power of the Incremental  Mindset

The better way to help a child—or anyone else, for that matter—is to encourage the incremental mindset by praising her for her effort:  “Wow!  You must have put a lot of work into that!”

The positive results the incremental, or growth, mindset produces even show up in the corporate world.

When CEOs believe that mistakes help people learn, they can lead their companies into greatness, Dweck says.  Such leaders encourage employees to see their mistakes as providing valuable feedback that they can use to develop different strategies.  They set up mentoring and employee development programs to encourage employee growth.

Companies that see themselves only as a showcase for brilliance, on the other hand, try to hide their mistakes and often end up failing.

Take Home Lessons

The first take home lesson is that if you want to be great at something, get to work on it.  “If you can’t excel with talent, triumph with effort,” says talk show host Dave Weinbaum, and he got it right.

At her website Mindset Online,  Dr. Dweck cites Robert Sternberg, “the present-day guru of intelligence” as saying that “the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.”

The second lesson is to challenge your limitations and dare the rough ground.   Don’t deny yourself exciting and valuable opportunities just because you’re not sure you can do them.   Keep reminding yourself that you can learn.  The science in neuroplasticity says experience even changes our DNA.

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it,” says Dweck, “even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Part of the reason that you thrive when you adopt the incremental mindset is that you no longer fear failure.  It falls into its rightful place as information instead of acting as a label of your abilities or worth.   It’s still not fun to fail of course. But when you see things with a growth mindset, it becomes worthwhile, freeing you to give even the scary things a run for their money.

And doing the difficult makes you feel like a million bucks.

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