One definition of willpower is doing what you need to do, when you need to do it, whether you feel like it or not. The bad news is willpower can be exhausted like an over-used muscle. The good news is that you can cultivate willpower and strengthen it.
Because your willpower can be depleted, it’s best to use it wisely and not squander it. An example of wasting your willpower is using it on emergencies such as temptation. Another example is trying to tackle 100 things at once and fatiguing your brain. The best way to use your willpower is in building habits that will make your life easier. Once these habits are ingrained in your life they will happen on autopilot. Here is one example of how this works in my life: I prepare food on Sundays that I can use for my lunches. That way when I’m in a rush in the morning I’m not grabbing just any old thing to pack in my lunch. And I don’t end up at work with no food and fall into the trap of fast food or junk food for lunch. Food prep has become a habit for me and I don’t have to think about it anymore, it’s just part of my routine.
Put systems in place to help move you towards success. Pre-commit to difficult decisions ahead of time. Here are some of my examples:
Businesses know these principles when they market to us. Just go to a Starbucks on a busy day. You may start out with the best intentions to only buy a small skinny latte. But you have to walk past all the shelves with many different, delicious snacks on them. Once you’re in line there are more choices to resist in the food case. At the register there are even more yummy snacks. Chocolate-covered coffee beans, anyone? By the time you get to the register your brain wants to reward you for being so good and resisting all those temptations and you give in and get “just one small treat.” Your willpower wore out.
Breathe – In moments where you need a boost of willpower, take the time to take some deliberate, deep breaths. This action can create some space between your thoughts and emotions and give you time to plan a course of action that is in line with your goals. Just one minute of deep breathing provides a disconnect between an impulse and your reaction to give you time to make a better decision.
Nutrition – Good nutrition is vital. Your brain doesn’t function as effectively on junk fuel. Sugar and flour are very ineffective brain fuel.
Get Moving – Exercise is known to increase willpower and is good for your overall health.
Sleep – Adequate sleep improves your ability to make good decisions.
Meditation – Taking the time to quiet your mind has been shown to increase blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex. This is the thinking/processing/willpower part of the brain. I have started taking 10 minutes in the morning to practice mediation.
Stress Relief – Increased stress decreases willpower. We tend to turn to ineffective stress relief methods. These are things like scrolling through Facebook, surfing the internet, binging on TV shows, drinking, eating, video games, etc. We think these things are helpful because we get a boost of dopamine that feels good in the moment. But it doesn’t actually allow you to recover your willpower. More effective strategies include things like meditation and exercise, petting your dog or cat, time with loved ones or taking a walk.
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