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.