I was talking with a friend this evening and she mentioned that had gained some weight since the new year had started, mainly due to a demanding work environment, recent surgery that has prohibited her from working out, and stress. I empathized with her distress and noted that willpower might have something to do with her weight gain.
According to research on the nature of self-control, before you start working on a goal, it's a good idea to understand how willpower really works. Willpower is the ability to resist short-term
temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Using willpower sometimes means not doing something, like skipping that second slice of cake you really want. Willpower can also be about taking positive action, like working out as you had planned, even if you really don't feel like it.
These five truths about willpower will change how you think about and use this inner resource to help meet your goals.
1. Your Willpower is like a piggy bank.
Just like dollars in your bank account, your capacity for self-control is in limited supply. Yes, you read that correctly! Willpower can vary in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Even everyday actions like decision-making or trying to make a good impression can sap this valuable resource, as can coping with the stresses of your career, family, and health issues. When you tax it too much at once, or for too long, the well of self-control strength runs dry. It is in these moments that the doughnut wins.
On any given day, you should budget your willpower so you have it when it counts. If you've spent all your self-control handling stresses at work, you will not have much left at the end of the day for sticking to your resolutions. Think about when you are most likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep yourself out of harm's way. Be prepared with an alternate activity or a low-calorie snack, whichever applies. For example, if you plan to hit the gym after work, pack a lunch. You may not have the wherewithal to resist pizza for lunch and also work out on your way home.
2. Your willpower is like a muscle.
Willpower is not something that you just have naturally at birth. It is actually like a muscle you can strengthen over time. Setting small, incremental goals that you regularly meet is the best way to boost your willpower.
The other way in which willpower is like a muscle (and the really great news for those of us trying to lose a few pounds) is that it can be made stronger over time, if you give it regular workouts. Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating, or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it, can strengthen your capacity for self-control. For example, in one study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months not only got physically healthier, but also smoked fewer cigarettes, drank less alcohol, and ate less junk food. They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to spend money impulsively. They didn't leave their dishes in the sink, didn't put things off until later, and missed fewer appointments. In fact, every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower improved dramatically.
3. Your feelings affect your willpower.
The connection between your emotions and your ability to turn down a cookie is not obvious, but it’s is definitely there. A hard day at work can limit your ability to meet goals later in the day. It's not just feelings that affect willpower. Anything that involves a lot of thinking and decision-making will make you more vulnerable to temptation later on.
4. You need more than willpower to succeed.
Willpower matters, but you’ll also need other strategies to help you keep on track. By its very nature, willpower is something that comes and goes. And it can be gone when you need it most.
One of the most effective tools you can have is known as “precommitting.” It’s a technique that takes willpower out of the equation. You scrub your environment of temptations you know are likely to test you.
An example of precommitting is getting rid of all your junk food and not buying any more when you are at the grocery store. A shopping list you stick to is another good habit that can supplement your willpower.
5. Willpower is a renewable resource.
Just like everyone else, there will be times your willpower runs out. But the good news is that willpower depletion is only temporary. It is possible to restore your supply. Give your muscle time to bounce back and you'll be back in fighting form and ready to say "no" to any doughnuts that come your way.
Take time out for yourself as a way to rest and recharge your willpower batteries. Most often the most rejuvenating "me time" is unstructured and offers freedom from your everyday routine. Listening to music is another proven way to help restore your willpower. Recent research also shows that you can actually speed up your self-control recovery, simply by thinking about people you know who have a lot of self-control.
Armed with an understanding of how willpower works, and how you can get your hands on some more of it, there's no reason why this can't be the year that you accomplish your goals and aspirations.