And while we might know what we want to do and what’s most important to us, a lot of times acting on that knowledge is really difficult!
I don’t care if you are a super hero of Professor Xavier proportions, at some point in your life you are going to have to wrestle with your impulses and face down self-control issues. It is inevitable.
In the book The Willpower Instinct author Kelly McGonigal explains that ultimately it is your frame of mind that fuels your willpower:
“It’s almost as if we have two minds. We have one brain that is very responsive to our immediate needs, and when we’re in that mindset, we tend to make decisions that are inconsistent with our long-term goals. But we also have this other mindset that thinks about long-term consequences, remembers what our big values are, and takes a kind of expansive view on our lives and our choices.”
When we focus on the immediate we find ourselves caught in a constant cycle of instant gratification, making it really difficult to do the things we know are good for us; but when we place our attention on the long-term, we tend to act in a way that makes our future self (the real-life superhero we aspire to become) happier and healthier!
Willpower is the super-power that directs our energy and attention to what we truly care about, and when it is weak (or even worse, completely absent) there will be a giant gap between our thoughts and actions.
So because I want to give you every possible tool available to change your life for the positive, here are five great tips for how to develop willpower like a superhero!
If X, Then Y
I’ve touched on this in the past (check out my tips on How To Develop a Healthy Routine if you haven’t yet!) but it definitely bears repeating…
Having trouble making the right decisions? Then program yourself like a robot (not one of those self-learning things that inevitably try to take over the world, just a good old-fashioned one that does what it is told) and eliminate options from the equation.
Computers don’t rationalize things, they don’t change the way they operate to experience a short-term rewards, they simply follow the program they are given. So apply some simple programming logic to your life!
If X, then Y.
That one simple statement should keep you safe from many willpower pitfalls. When you program a computer to do something, it does it; no arguing, no justifying poor decisions outside the program, no moaning about that something being too hard.
By planning out your personal choices you can slowly train your willpower and save it for the unexpected things that pop up in your life. Take a few minutes and write down the computer program that will govern the decision-making process necessary to reach your goals.
- Find yourself guzzling sodas at work? If I get sluggish during the work day, then I will get up and go for a 10 minute stroll.
- Just can’t stop boredom eating at home? If I go grocery shopping, then I will stay out of the snack aisle.
- Lose motivation after the workday is over? If I come home from work, then I will immediately do my workout before turning on my Xbox.
Don’t fight with your urges, just tell yourself “This is just what I do now” and get that willpower leveled up.
Back in the late ’60s a team of
sadistic bastards researchers conducted a famous behavioral experiment using nothing but a marshmallow and some kids.
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, as it is referred to, was pretty simple. It involved putting a child in a room with a marshmallow on a plate. They were told they could eat the tasty treat if they wanted or they could wait for the researcher to return in 15 minutes and then they could have two. Only a third were able to resist long enough for the extra reward.
The key takeaway point from this was that the kids who held out had to avoid staring at the sugary goodness, by covering their eyes or sitting so they couldn’t see the treat, in order to succeed.
As it turns out, the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thing really works! In related news a 2011 Cornell study found that what we see first in the pantry or fridge is what we’re most likely to eat, proving that this holds true for adults as well.
So while I totally support your right to just cover your eyes, or plug your ears and go “LalalalalaNotListeningLalalalala“, when confronted by something that will challenge your willpower… you might get some funny looks. A little bit of planning can make all the difference though!
- At a restaurant and trying to cut back on the calories? Tell the waiter ahead of time not to bring the dessert menu.
- Having a hard time cutting back on time spent playing video games? Move your gaming rig or console to a room in the house you don’t frequent.
- Unable to kick your fast food cravings? Find new regular routes that don’t bring you by your favorite drive-thru.
Getting the things that battle your willpower out of sight is the first step to conquering them.
Treat Yourself… Occasionally
I know this might sound like it is in direct opposition to the above, but it isn’t!
It’s a fact that crash diets don’t work. The amount of willpower we have is limited; and when we use it all up making ourselves miserable for extended periods of time, through total deprivation, we end up crashing and burning horribly after the fact. This is why so many people actually end up gaining more weight after a fad diet ends than they lost! This is why we don’t “diet” we change our long-term eating habits and just make it part of our lifestyle.
And this new lifestyle should factor in the occasional treat; sometimes referred to as a cheat meal to allow us a quick respite from exercising our willpower all the time.
It’s also important to note that this doesn’t only apply to diet or exercise; it is applicable to all facets of life! For example maybe you are wrestling with productivity issues, then it would behoove you to factor into your week’s schedule some downtime with your Xbox, PlayStation, TV, or what-have-you after a long week of staying vigilant and on task.
Don’t just take my word for it, psychologist Denise Cummins explained in “Psychology Today” – “While wisely exercising self-control is a great way to build willpower, never giving yourself a break is a good way to deplete your resolve…”
Even Batman needs to sleep.
If you’re struggling with a lack of willpower, stress and lack of sleep will only make things worse! Not only will stress and being tired deplete your willpower bar faster than taking one of Chun Li‘s lightning kicks square in the grill, but high levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in the body often cause cravings for sugar, carbs and alcohol… and in a cruel twist of fate, these things in turn increase cortisol levels in the body.
“When people are stressed, they tend to fall back on ingrained habits — whether those habits are helpful or harmful,” says Dr. Cummins. “Often, this is not a conscious choice. Rather, people resort to old habits without thinking because they are in a stressed state.”
So in order to max out your willpower, it’s a wise decision to make sure you are getting enough sleep and to schedule time for scientifically proven stress reducing activities like exercise or yoga. This will help you build a strong reserve of willpower you’ll need to make the right decision when faced with temptation.
To Forgive Is Divine
Everyone makes mistakes.
We all slip up from time to time… maybe you over-indulged during the holidays on Aunt Bertha’s pumpkin pie, maybe you couldn’t resist the sirens call of the PlayStation 4 and maxed out your credit card buying one, maybe the warm embrace of your Superman Snuggie during the cold of winter convinced you to skip a week or two worth of workouts?
Whatever it is, beating yourself up over it isn’t going to help! Believe it or not, in the long run, practicing a little self-forgiveness after a lapse in judgement can play a big role in boosting self-control and willpower. If you are mindful of the way you are feeling you can use it as fuel for your next fight with the same temptation.
Life can be rough, and we can definitely be our own worst enemy. So when we have set-backs we can’t just curl up in a ball and say “I can’t do it” and quit, we need to get back up, dust ourselves off and try again. Let me just leave you with these immortal words:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa
So there we go… now get out there and start developing some serious willpower! Let me know in the comments below, what is your biggest willpower obstacle and how are you going to beat it?!? Just be sure to use these new-found super powers for good…
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PS – Want even more advice on how to level up your willpower? Then don’t forget to check out “The Willpower Instinct“ by Kelly McGonigal.