How do some people consistently choose healthy options, even when faced with temptations lurking around every corner? Are they some sort of supernatural creatures? Turns out, they may just avoid making lots of decisions and exercise their willpower muscle more than others. Read below to find out how to pump yours up!
Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, found that, in order to achieve lifestyle changes, you need to: 1.) establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal, 2.) monitor your behavior toward that goal, and 3.) practice willpower. Upon first glance, these three elements are pretty obvious, but they can be so damn hard to implement.
Willpower, the Muscle
Essentially, willpower is "the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals." In other words, fending off the desire to give into instant gratification, or allowing impulsive or emotional reasons to dictate all of your decisions, AKA self-control. The sticky part to this is that we all are unique and different things tempt us for different reasons, which can derail us from our goals, whether they be related to health, finances, relationships, or career. So is willpower something we can improve? Luckily, psychologists and researchers have likened willpower to a muscle, which can be exhausted if overused in the short term, but strengthened by regular use in the long term. So, just like anything, it takes practice. The more we employ willpower in our lives, the more we'll get better at exerting self-control.
This analogy helped me have a good handle on why it's so damn hard to use willpower sometimes. If we are constantly bombarded by temptation and choices all day with no strategy to deal with it, or if we are just beginning a journey towards a new goal, willpower can be a real bitch. And it's not just you. This is a heavily studied phenomenon, and very different for everyone. But, the following things can help immensely to pump your willpower muscle up and kick some goals' asses.
Often, people want to just overhaul their whole lives and do everything at once (think New Years' Resolutions) but then often don't end up following through with any of them. Trying to tackle a litany of huge goals all at once is setting yourself up for failure--you're bound to feel overwhelmed and just throw your hands up (or throw that damn plate of veggies on the ground!). Instead, try picking a single goal at a time. If you have several goals you'd like to work towards, you need to prioritize them and be honest with yourself about what you'll actually do and what is feasible. A way to think about prioritizing is to assess 1) the goals' difficulty and 2) your interest in actually doing it. Sometimes, the best strategy is--especially in the beginning-- to pick something that is of high interest to you and relatively low difficulty; in other words, something to set yourself up for success. Successfully achieving a goal feels good, and it'll give you the confidence to tackle something that is a little more difficult and/or something you may be less interested in.
This is something I feel strongly about with my clients--we work to prioritize their goals, then make small, incremental and achievable action steps towards that goal.
2.) Get Clear on Your 'Why'
Having a goal--knowing WHAT to do and even HOW to do it--are great, but if we don't have a strong WHY, we probably won't stick with it. The 'why' is your motivation--that fire under your ass that makes it something worth the hard work. As I mentioned before, willpower is like a muscle that can get fatigued if constantly worked, but studies have shown that "the right motivation allows us to tap into our reserves, allowing us to persevere even when our self-control strength has been run down." If we are motivated by the wrong reasons (because we feel we 'have to,' or to look a certain way, or for other people), then we likely won't follow through with anything. A separate blog post is coming on how to really get to the bottom of your unique why(s), but just know that if you aren't feeling inspired to drive towards your goal, you'll need to sit down and think about your own motivation.
3.) Focus Your Energy & Commit
Once you pick your goal, give it the attention it deserves (read: make it a priority in your life!). This may sound obvious, but just declaring that something is a goal doesn't actually make it happen. You do actually need give it your time and attention. Isn't it amazing how when we really want to do something, we'll be damn sure it gets done, against all odds? We look back and wonder how the hell we did it. Like when I went back to school, was working three jobs and had zero money for anything fun while all of my friends had just graduated, I stayed focused and got it done, and it was all worth it. How can we do this? We canNOT let excuses creep in. If you constantly allow yourself to succumb to excuses, it will be your downfall! So be firm with yourself and believe you can do it (because you actually can). All of the excuses we come up with: "I'm not worth it," "I don't have enough money for this," "I don't have time," "I don't know how," etc….it's all bullshit because there are ways around everything if we set our mind to it. We all have crazy stories from our youth when we had such focus and determination, we just figured it out and made it happen when we needed to. Tap into that energy and get it done!
4.) Plan Ahead
This is probably the most important thing to make any habit or lifestyle change stick.... If willpower is like a muscle that can fatigue, this tip is helping to avoid the fatigue as much as possible. First, you'll need to be very honest with yourself about your cravings, what things tempt you, and what excuses always get the best of you. Are you constantly tempted to turn to the vending machine at work? Then make sure you bring healthy snacks with you and don't let yourself get to the point where you're starving and willing to eat anything. Do you feel too tired to make a healthy dinner? Shop and prep parts of the meal on Sundays. Whatever is your temptation and/or main excuse(s), strategize ways ahead of time to work around them. Do as much as you can ahead of time to minimize the need to make decisions. If you don't have to decide whether or not to eat healthy, work out, etc., then you're more likely to just do it. When I used to work in the corporate world, I was far too tired after work to exercise, and way too unorganized to work out in the morning, which meant I was often just not doing it. So, I decided to work out during my lunch hour and then eat at my desk afterwards. I kept extra workout clothes and everything I needed in my desk, ate a healthy snack around 10am to make sure I wasn't 'too hungry to work out' at noon, wore clothes that were easy to change in and out of quickly, etc. Essentially, I thought of everything that deterred me from not working out, and made a plan to overcome those things. Not only is this helping you mentally commit to something (I just went through all this work to plan for it), you have no excuses left. By making the 'right' choice the easy choice and thinking through scenarios ahead of time will make you much more likely to succeed and not feel like you're constantly depleting your willpower reserves.
"By making the 'right' choice the easy choice and thinking through scenarios ahead of time will make you much more likely to succeed and not feel like you're constantly depleting your willpower reserves."
5.) Find Accountability & Support
Turn to people for help! There's nothing wrong with asking for help, especially when your goals will take quite a bit of willpower or require an overhaul of your lifestyle. Others can help keep us accountable, give us support when we are feeling down, or give advice when we don't know what to do. Support from others can help keep you on track by reassuring us. As stated above, this is important to plan ahead early on. Think about the people in your life that take responsibility for and prioritize their health, and reach out to them. Health coaches like myself are great (unbiased, non-emotionally involved) resources trained to help with just these scenarios.
6.) Do Your Brain a Favor
It will be really, REALLY hard for your brain to stick to much of anything if you’re running on little sleep, are totally stressed out, have a thousand other things on your mind or aren’t fueling your brain with proper nutrition. It’s very important to focus on self-care and stress management if you want to succeed at any new endeavor that will require willpower and focus. I’ll be following up with plenty of more information on these things individually, as there are many strategies to improve sleep, help manage stress and fuel your brain, but in the meantime: anything you can do to help yourself sleep, de-stress will do wonders in helping you succeed in attaining your goals for the long haul.
7.) Toughen Up
Working towards certain goals can be very challenging, confusing and downright uncomfortable at first. Once you understand and embrace that it's probably not going to be a walk in the park, you'll have a much easier time achieving your goal. The reason that unhealthy behaviors creep in and take over is that, usually, they are the easy way out. Fear not, though. Once you unlock your potential to overcome smaller obstacles, you'll be better equipped to overcome larger, more complex challenges and find new opportunities present themselves in your life. Be firm with yourself and don’t let excuses creep in.
If you just threw your arms up in confusion (she JUST said to toughen up!?), remember the muscle analogy: willpower is like a muscle that can become fatigued with overuse and no rest. Just as rest and recovery are extremely important components of an exercise routine, they too are important for our brain. So, it's definitely important to not let excuses take over, but it's also important to not be so unrealistic or rigid that you're going to burn yourself out. You are a human, for gosh sakes, and sometimes you should have the damn piece of pizza or slice of cake. Let yourself indulge here and there and enjoy the things you like, but just make sure you are being mindful about them (really allow yourself to enjoy them & be in the present). And, please remember that, even if you had one day, weekend or even week of indulging yourself or straying from your goals, it doesn't mean that you should give up. Be kind to yourself. If you've already done all of the previous tips, you'll know exactly what to do to get back on track.
American Psychological Association, What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.pdf
Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press.