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Coaching Yourself in Personal Willpower

Being your own willpower coach doesn’t boost your brain capacity or invest you with any special powers, but it does ensure that you maximise the key ingredient of success: willpower.

A good coach offers encouragement from the first day the novice athlete shows up for training on a cold, dark morning, long before the athlete has any prospect of winning a medal. The coach knows that if athletes don’t receive rewards, they’ll never have an opportunity to go for gold. The wise coach knows that the best way to achieve distant goals is to focus on measurable short-term objectives. Reaching these milestones reinforces your efforts.

With the discovery of the brain’s pleasure centre came research into the connection between pleasure and motivation. Researchers discovered that the brain learns very quickly the cues and triggers that predict pleasure. These stimuli can grab attention in fractions of a second. And the brain seeks to continue the pleasurable sensation and constantly seeks out enjoyable experiences.

The next time you find yourself looking at something appetising (or someone you find appetising!) be aware that this doesn’t happen by chance. Your brain’s pleasure centre ensures that your reward radar locks onto the signal.

This relentless scanning for rewards is a major challenge to your willpower, because it can activate urges and craving. When you use your willpower to forego a source of reward such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating sugary foods, your brain’s reward centre goes into overdrive to redress the balance.

Unless you find an alternative reward, your willpower will be overwhelmed eventually. Fortunately, a reward doesn’t need to be large or even tangible. It can be as simple as the satisfaction of ticking the last item on your to-do list and telling yourself ‘well done’. Part of the reward process is simply feedback telling you that, yes, you succeeded! Promptly delivered, this rewarding message can prove to be motivational. As your own willpower coach, you should offer verbal rewards at various points throughout your training programme.

When it comes to rewards, timing is crucial. The reward should follow the target behaviour immediately or as soon as is feasible.

The reason why your willpower seems to evaporate when pursuing long-term aims is that the gains are equally long term. The most effective way to deal with this is to ensure that you’re realising a regular source of reinforcement or reward as you strive for your long-term goals. Just saying ‘well done’ to yourself or identifying a pleasurable activity, an activity you’re skilled at, or a treat (you’re free to use your imagination!) that doesn’t conflict with your long-term goal is the key to rewarding your efforts at each step of the way.

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