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Cheat Sheet

Willpower For Dummies

From Willpower For Dummies by Frank Ryan

Willpower evolved to ensure that human beings survive and prosper both as a species and as individuals by enabling them to make tough choices and forego easy options. If goals were achieved when beckoned by wishful thinking and habits vanished with a click of your fingers, you would not require willpower. Willpower entails projecting yourself into the future, often foregoing immediate pleasure or indulgence in pursuit of longer-term and ultimately more valued goals. This task can be a daunting one which nonetheless you can achieve if you understand willpower and how to maximise it. This Cheat Sheet gives you some of the essential basics up front for doing just that.

What Can Willpower Help You to Achieve?

When you do summon up your willpower, you can make your dreams come true and your unwanted habits disappear. In both scenarios, having a clear goal is vital to success. A goal guides your thinking and behaviour and enables you to maintain your motivation and focus your willpower. For example, think about:

  • Sitting in a restaurant on a cold Tuesday in December, imagining what it would be like to swim in a sun-drenched pool the following summer, having shed unwanted pounds and slipped into a slinky bikini. Then you say: ‘No thanks, I’m skipping dessert today’.

  • Looking out at a sun-drenched pool (not necessarily the same one!) but instead switching on your laptop to prepare for three hours of study for an exam in six months’ time that promises to define your future.

  • Saying ‘no’ to a cigarette two weeks after you’ve quit, even though you can almost taste the tobacco. Your mind is once again on the future, which will be longer and healthier for you because of willpower overriding your impulse to smoke.

  • Doing without life’s luxuries because you are saving to ensure your baby will be able to go to college in 18 or so years’ time.

Key Points for Boosting Your Willpower

Getting the most from your willpower involves ‘dos’ as well as ‘don’ts’. Recognising the limits of your willpower is definitely a ‘do’ because doing so helps prevent you from overloading it. Stressing, worrying and ruminating come under the ‘don’t’ heading because doing so can deplete your willpower and drain your motivation.

Here are some key ways to set about giving your willpower a boost:

  • Accept that willpower is a shared but limited resource.

    Recognising your limits is essential for managing your willpower. If you’re preparing for an exam, for example, the time might not be right to go on a strict diet or quit smoking because both goals would compete for your limited supply of willpower.

  • Know that willpower needs motivation, memory and presence of mind.

    Willpower flourishes when you are clear with regard to your motives, can ensure that your goal remains prominent in your memory and that you can stay focused on it in the face of distractions.

  • Choose the right goal at the right time to harness your willpower.

    Be realistic: change one thing at a time rather than trying to reinvent yourself and come up with a ‘brand new you’. Willpower is a wonderful source of strength but it works best when you focus on one thing rather than many. Being single-minded is the key to success!

  • Regulate your emotions to foster willpower.

    Emotions such as fear, lust or anger grab attention. This disarms your willpower because focused attention is vital for willpower. Regulating your emotions is the most important indirect way of fostering willpower.

    A good way to start is to reflect on a recent experience of heightened emotion. Can you recall what you were thinking? Your thoughts may have been extreme or biased. (Did being 20 minutes late for the meeting really signal the end of your career, as you may have fleetingly thought?) The next time you experience such strong feelings, aim to balance your thoughts. (If a workmate arrived late one morning would you judge them as harshly as you may have judged yourself?)

  • Supplant habits with routines, rewards and records.

    Habits require very little willpower to continue but considerable willpower to reverse. The best way to overcome an unwanted or undesirable habit is to supplant it with a new habit or routine. This needs to be linked to a reward and also recorded, because feedback can be a powerful motivator.

    To establish a new habit, try this approach:

  • Develop a routine: Exercise at the same time and on the same days every week; assign particular timeslots to work or study on particular projects.

  • Reward yourself: Identify a reward or treat to enjoy after you complete the behaviour that you want to make habitual.

  • Keep a record of your behaviour: For example, keep a journal of the distance you run each day, the time you spend exercising or the number of words you write for your school or work project. Make this easy for yourself by using a smart-phone app for logging exercise or recording calories, or monitor the word count on your word processing software.

  • See you later ruminator!

    Your ability to reflect on yourself, other people and the world defines you as an individual. Something to celebrate, for sure, but this can work against you if the reflection turns into rumination or brooding. Your brain has its own system (called the default network) that is engaged when you’re not focused on a particular task or problem to solve. This can demand as much mental energy as when you are focusing on a task using your willpower.

  • Don’t go it alone.

    Willpower has the power to transform your life, but not without the support and encouragement of other people. Recall a time when a few words of encouragement or an expression of understanding of the challenges you were facing re-energised your efforts.

    Social networks such as family, friends, colleagues and yes, even those who follow your wise words on Twitter, do not build themselves, though. Particularly when you are pursuing challenging goals, forgetting about your friends and taking loved ones for granted is all too easy, so take care not to let this happen. There will always be occasions when your willpower proves lacking and you need the encouragement of those close to you. This will prove essential to sustain your willpower in the long term.

3 Ways to Boost Your Willpower

Impulses, whether driving decisions you make or things you do (or, indeed, avoid doing) are the enemies of willpower because impulses arise rapidly before you can mobilise your willpower to override them. Anticipating when your willpower is likely to be tested by impulses and having a plan prepared for the inevitable challenge is essential.

The rule to remember is ‘keep it simple’. Plans that are too complicated can be counter-productive and further deplete your willpower.

Here are three tried and tested techniques to help you mobilise your willpower when the going gets tough!

  • Making implementation plans: The most effective format for a plan is the if…then approach. Assume, for example, that you’ve quit smoking but you’re likely to be offered a cigarette at some stage in the evening. Rehearsing your response along the lines ‘if I am offered a cigarette I will say, “no thanks, I’ve quit, but I’d really love a cup of coffee”’.

    If your goal is to keep down your calorie count when eating in a restaurant, rehearsing the statement ‘I’ll have the fruit salad instead of the cheesecake’ gives you both an alternative goal and the means to achieve it. Or, if you’re struggling to complete a study or work assignment, an implementation plan would be: I will switch on my computer at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning and spend two hours working on the project’.

  • Adopting the Now versus Later tactic: Anticipating when temptation will arise and to be ready with an implementation plan is not always – or often – possible. On these occasions a more general, flexible response is required. Temptation, the craving that impulses evoke, happens quickly; in most cases the immediate reward would be gratifying and pleasurable, whether it is linked to appetites for food, sex or simply inertia (think staying in bed for an extra 15 minutes on a wintry morning!).

    However, there is more to life than the immediate ‘now’: there is indeed a ‘later’. Remembering this, and switching your focus to the longer-term consequences achieves two things: firstly, it interrupts your craving or longing for the immediate reward and, secondly, it provides you with a new motive or incentive to reconsider any impulsive decision. The extra drink or the moment of illicit intimacy could well have consequences that are unwelcome in the longer term.

  • Embracing mindfulness: The ancient tradition of mindfulness, the art of paying attention moment by moment in a non-judgemental way, is a true friend of willpower. Simply practising mindfulness boosts your willpower as you discover how to gently focus and refocus your attention on your breathing, posture or simple movements of your limbs.

    The ability to pay attention over lengthy periods of time is the key to maintaining your willpower. Moreover, the acceptance and compassion that define mindfulness also enable you to deal with the inevitable setbacks that occur when you’re harnessing your willpower to achieve your goals.

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