Willpower For Dummies
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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.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

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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