Willpower For Dummies
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Willpower is a uniquely human attribute. The pursuit of valued long-term goals such as health, fitness or success entails discounting or ignoring more immediate wants, needs and desires. Managing this double act – maintaining a long-term goal in the face of temptation or the lure of indulgence – is what your willpower is designed to do.

Many people believe that they don’t possess sufficient willpower to meet this challenge. To be sure, willpower varies from person to person. This doesn’t mean, however, that willpower cannot be fostered either directly by practising self-control or indirectly by sculpting your lifestyle to create a context in which your willpower can flourish.

Encouragingly, those people who struggle the hardest with exercising willpower stand to benefit the most by adhering to the ten tips described here! Even those people who can justifiably claim robust willpower will benefit from reading these tips because willpower is always limited by mental energy levels, motivation and brainpower. Understanding the limits of your willpower is the first step on your journey to maximise it.

Stay focused

Willpower is the capacity to stay focused on short-term and long-term goals in the face of inevitable distractions, temptations and fatigue. Thinking ‘focus’ guides you towards maintaining a goal and shielding it from distractions. In addition, taking a focused approach enables you to avoid the implication of weakness on your part: regarding depleted willpower as a weakness entirely misses the point.

Everyone experiences a willpower vacuum at some stage, particularly if you are maximising your willpower resources, and staying focused, or refocusing after distractions or setbacks, is the key to fostering willpower.

Imagine, for a moment, an athletics coach aiming to get the best performance from his or her charges. Urging greater focus is more likely to deliver optimal performance than shouting ‘use your willpower!’ or simply ‘try harder!’ Similarly, reminding yourself to stay focused, as opposed to telling yourself ‘I need more willpower’ is the best approach.

Feed your hungry brain

Your brain conducts much of its business effortlessly and unconsciously – when you become adept and skilled at an activity you say ‘I can do it in my sleep’. You summon willpower when your brain is required to do the opposite of this: that is, to make conscious, effortful operations. Willpower, however, is hard work for you and your brain.

William James, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology, likened habits (a frequent target for willpower) to a flywheel whizzing around smoothly and requiring little effort to keep going. Stopping that flywheel, however is another matter. Doing so requires effort – or willpower. A fit brain, one that is well nourished, makes it easier to slow and stop the flywheel, or even get it going in the opposite direction!

In order to do a job – think quitting smoking or getting up an hour earlier to meditate or exercise, for example – your brain needs food. Your brain, weighing in at about 2 per cent of your body weight, consumes about 25 per cent of your glucose intake. Glucose is the brain’s source of energy and is, of course, a form of sugar.

Sugar can indeed give your brain a boost. However, the simple carbohydrates or sugars found in processed foods and drinks such as sodas and candies do not adequately meet your brain’s (or indeed your body’s) nutritional needs. The complex carbohydrates found in natural and generally unprocessed foods, however, take longer to break down but act as a form of slow-release energy. These are by far the better option for providing your brain with the steady supply of energy it needs.

A diet rich in fruit, cereals, vegetables and unsaturated fats such as olive oil is better than one high in saturated fats, as found in meat and dairy products and refined sugar. While your brain itself will not get hungry whilst eating these foods, awareness of hunger triggered by rapidly falling sugar levels (refined sugar triggers peaks and troughs) can be distracting, and distraction is the enemy of willpower.

Train your brain

Your brain never sleeps, and loves it when you are physically and mentally active. Embracing activity keeps your brain cells lively by strengthening the links between them and creating new links. When you consider that willpower is usually summoned when you’re trying to change – either aiming to do something new or to stop doing something familiar or habitual – you will appreciate how a fit and agile brain is a big asset.

Treat setbacks with compassion

Blaming yourself for setbacks when your willpower proves wanting can turn a drama into a crisis! Remember, as the saying goes, ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’. Having one cigarette after quitting or failing one exam, for example, are best viewed as evidence of effort. If you hadn’t achieved some success to begin with, you would indeed have had nothing to lose.

You will have lessons to learn, for sure, but beating yourself isn’t a good starting point. Lack of compassion to yourself is also linked to perfectionism, the tendency to base your self-esteem on the attainment of relentlessly high standards, rather than your values as a person who can be loyal, loving or humorous, for instance.

Offer rewards for all!

Because willpower generally delivers rewards in the long term, you need to reward yourself for reaching steps along the way to your ultimate goal. Willpower is often called upon to devalue or discount immediate reward – whether that reward is food, drink, sex or just switching off the alarm clock to enjoy ten more minutes in bed – and focus instead on a more distant reward. The distant reward can be much more valuable but in the same way that a distant object can appear small and insignificant to the human eye, the distant reward appears less significant and lacks the motivational magnetism to drive your behaviour.

Fortunately, you are programmed to respond to a wide range of rewards. These don’t need to be tangible or appetitive (giving yourself biscuits or cakes as a reward for diligent dieting would surely be self-defeating!). Activities or pursuits that you find engaging and like to spend time doing are, by definition, rewarding. Otherwise you would not choose to expend effort doing them, and miss out on doing something else. The list is as long as your imagination: listening to music, surfing the web, reading science fiction, writing a self-help book (mostly rewarding!), Tweeting, going on Facebook or just watching old movies.

The key is to link the reward – for example, an hour watching TV or luxuriating in the tub – to the effort used pursuing the long-term goal. For instance, if you reached your daily quota of exercise or adhered to your new diet, you can then reward yourself. This could simply be noting your achievement. Timely feedback, whether it is a daily summary from a fitness app on your smart phone or counting the amount of hours you worked on a project despite being tired, is itself rewarding.

Remember that the willpower pool can run dry

Have you ever noticed after a demanding day at work that you are likely to eat more, drink more or shop more than is good for you or your bank balance? This is because the mental effort invested in the workplace – whether you’re dealing with rude customers, insensitive bosses or just the plain pressure of work – draws on a common pool of willpower. When you subsequently encounter a tempting situation with little reserves of willpower you can be like a rabbit in the headlights!

One way to prevent this is to plan for a willpower shortage by committing yourself in advance to an alternative activity, say by bringing your gym gear to work. This also acts as a cue or trigger to do what is ultimately of more benefit. Or, you could simply be aware that your willpower is weak after a taxing day and avoid situations likely to require much willpower. The point to remember is that executing ostensibly different tasks or roles effectively draws on a common resource.

Tap into the willpower reservoir

If a downside exists to viewing willpower as a shared, and thereby scarce, resource, you can also see an upside: that training or practicing in one mode – say learning a new skill or practicing self-control at home – can boost your willpower at work, or vice versa. The analogy is that if you train for a marathon you would also find that you could walk up several flights of stairs (perhaps not immediately after the run, though!) without getting breathless. Your fitness in one area generalises to another. As willpower relies on core processes such as focused attention and short-term memory, any practice that stretches these bolsters your willpower across the board.

Be aware of willpower traps

Habits, especially those linked to alcohol, other drugs or ‘behavioural addictions’ such as gaming, gambling or sexually motivated acts become hardwired into your brain’s reward system. Even after lengthy spells of control or restraint they can be re-activated by encountering a trigger predicting the reward to come. It is a case of ‘the enemy within’, as part of your sensory system remembers the cues and actively – although subconsciously – seeks them out, probably because in the evolutionary past the ‘impulsive opportunist’ strategy served our ancestors well. Coming across rewards, be they nutritional or sexual, could be rare and the opportunity needed to be seized.

In today’s world, the exact opposite holds true for the most part. Consider the vast range of incentives available in any supermarket, for instance. The ubiquitous special offers – buy one, get one free, three for the price of two and so on – appeal to some very ancient instincts, but these offers will no doubt present themselves again in the future, perhaps with even more incentives to indulge. These marketing strategies nonetheless exploit a chink in your willpower armour: susceptibility to immediate gratification.

The best way to prepare for the urge to yield to fall for gratification is to know your triggers and expect to encounter them, with a simple coping strategy primed and ready to deploy. It could be ‘if I find myself in a bar with a gaming machine I will leave immediately!’ or ‘if I am offered chocolate I will say “No thanks” and think “I can have a little later, but not until after supper”’.

Recall your successes and achievements

Recalling your achievements – whether passing an exam, obtaining an award or simply being a good parent, loyal friend or loving partner – can support willpower in two ways. First, it boosts confidence in your willpower by reminding you of what you can achieve and sustain when it really matters. Second, focusing on attainments of which you can be justifiably proud leads to an uplift in mood. Positive moods do not directly boost willpower (although anxious or sad moods do deplete it) but enable you to be more creative and outgoing, both of which offer a better platform on which willpower can flourish.

Live a willpower-promoting lifestyle

Ultimately, you can never totally rely on your willpower to deliver day after day or week after week. You need to create a lifestyle or context within which it will continue to flourish. Some of the ingredients (literally, in the case of food!) are good diet, regular mental and physical exercise. Meditation is also a remarkable process, sharpening your brain and improving your wellbeing at the same time.

Monitoring your stress, and managing it when necessary, is vital. Stress, and associated emotions such as anger and sadness, can quickly grab your attention, and when this happens your willpower is next to useless, as focused attention is vital for willpower. So be mindful of your emotions and, if you experience regular intense episodes, take some time to reflect on your lifestyle you’re your commitments.

It could even be that you are simply striving too hard, having discovered the secrets of willpower generation! But that is not where your story should end: willpower is not all about striving and success. Willpower exists to help you achieve the right balance between the things that you have to do, or at least ought to do, such as quitting smoking or saving for a rainy day, and the things you want to do in order to bring pleasure and joy to your life.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Frank Ryan is a clinical psychologist and cognitive therapist, specialising in cognition and impulse control. He is also the author of Cognitive Therapy For Addiction, published by Wiley.

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