by Angela Reed-Fox
We end the day with less willpower than we started. See here for the blog post on that. As we make more decisions, it becomes harder to make the right ones. Just as a muscle gets tired when we overuse it, it’s the same with willpower. Our willpower comes from that same part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) which is also concerned with making decisions and balancing judgments.
BUT the good thing is, just like a muscle, we can strengthen our willpower through training.
First of all, we need a benchmark:
Go through a whole day and where possible make a mental (or written) note of the decisions you make. What choices did you make for breakfast, did you consider having a morning snack? What were the options and what did you decide? Once you start consciously thinking about what you’re thinking you’ll start to see patterns. When you see the patterns, you’ll then be able to see where the problems are – and if there’s a pattern, usually by tweaking just one thing, you’ll be able to tackle the whole caboodle.
Think back to a time when you resisted temptation well, or made good decisions. Keep coming back to this moment whenever you are struggling. It's worth remembering that sometimes you're stronger than at other times - it's not that you have low willpower, but more likely that you need to capitalise on when you're feeling stronger.
Perhaps you gave up smoking - that's a definite willpower victory! It might be something big - or it might be something smaller but still significant; for example, when you decide for the greater good that you're not going to take the last word in an argument. This still involves willpower.
Remembering those times when you did well, rather than using a negative mantra of "I always give up" or "I can never do this" will help to boost your confidence - and your willpower.
One of the essential components for a healthy lifestyle is exercise – and it’s not popular because it takes effort. But what if I told you that those who make no other change than committing to exercise a couple of times a week (and not necessarily anything major like marathon training) found that after a few weeks, they were eating less junk food, eating better, more punctual, more motivated to study rather than watch TV, and more able to get things done.
This has been replicated in several studies – and it seems that success feeds success. As we become more confident at resisting temptation, this spreads to other areas of our lives. If you’ve ever been on a ‘health kick’ before, you may have noticed that when you’ve exercised you aren’t so desperate for cake or wine, or the usual things that you find difficult to resist.
Another good reason to build physical activity into your week is the release of endorphins – this is the feel-good factor, and if you’re feeling good, what happens? You’re on a roll and your willpower is stronger!
Taking time to relax and unwind aids willpower in that the more we’re stressed – and the longer we stay stressed, the less willpower we will have. Stress hormone levels in the blood turn us into reward-seekers – looking for anything that will give us gratification. Reducing those levels through sleep and recovery will improve our ability to resist temptation when it comes.
Likewise, the added benefit, if you’re combining physical activity with rest, is that there will be a greater variability between when your heart is working the hardest (faster heartrate) and when your heart is not needing to work so hard because you’re at rest (slower heartrate). Why is this important? Because this variability, this gap between your fastest and slowest heartrates is linked to a greater ability to abstain from alcohol, delay gratification, stay focused without distraction, and of course, cope with stress.
The more relaxed you are, the more you will be able to exercise a greater level of self-control in more areas of your life.
****Most people will ignore these two points above (Move, and Relax) - but these are two of the most effective ways to increase your willpower and boost successful living****
Both our body and our brain need food. Glucose is fuel – and some foods release a ‘hit’ of glucose which quickly fades. This drop in blood sugar can leave us feeling irritable and moody – it can make us eager to find the next source of sugar for our next hit. And the cycle repeats.
What can you do? Reduce your intake of those foods that provide the big sugar ‘hit’. Whole foods such as fruit and vegetables, and wholegrain cereals will provide a slower release of energy, thus avoiding the ‘downer’ you get after a sugar hit.
Naturally some of these points will take a little while to build success into your life. So start doing them today, but below are a couple of quick fixes which you can use to start showing you success right from day 1.
Quick Fix 1 - Distract
When temptation hits – do something else. If your willpower is pretty depleted by this stage, this might be difficult.
Quick Fix 2 - Delay
At times when willpower is at a low ebb, you can try the delay tactic. Want that chocolate biscuit? Instead of bullying yourself to say ‘no’, try negotiation instead. Tell yourself that you’re going to wait 20 minutes, and that if after this time you’re still wanting that chocolate biscuit, then you’ll eat it – but just not before 20 minutes! Sometimes, you’ll still want the chocolate biscuit after the 20 minutes has elapsed. But mostly, a craving will only last 10-15 minutes, and so when the time’s up, you’ve moved on to something else.
Quick fix 3 - Visualisation
It's good to remind ourselves of why we're trying to sustain changes in our lifestyle. This is where visualisation comes in: