Whether your aim is to lose five pounds, stop buying shoes or choose books over the boob tube, there is one thing essential for the winner’s circle. Willpower. The bad news: This is never going to change. The good news: It is possible to strengthen your stick-to-it-iveness, so there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be healthier, happier, brainier people by this time next month. Here, some tips to build up your iron will.
Get to bed
Regardless of your ambition, you will be in better shape to achieve it if you get good and regular shut-eye – but if the ideal eight hours seems impossible, just focus on regular sleep patterns, meaning you are rising and retiring at the same time every day.
“Being well rested will improve brain power in your prefrontal cortex, which is where willpower resides,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and author of the new book The Willpower Instinct. Dr. McGonigal says trying to achieve your goals (and avoid bad habits) while tired is the equivalent to trying to do so while you’re a little bit drunk, and we all know that the drive to do just about anything (except have another cocktail) is considerably depleted after a drink or two.
Be a willpower athlete
“Like any form of strength, we can improve our willpower through training,” says Dr. McGonigal. You probably wouldn’t run a marathon without completing a lot of smaller athletic goals first, and the same principle applies.
Before kicking off a big challenge like quitting smoking, prep by taking on less difficult challenges. “It’s almost irrelevant what you choose – it could be something as simple as improving your posture.” says Dr. McGonigal. “The key is that you’re practising the act of paying attention to your behaviour and being in control.”
Give yourself a hug
Most of us tend to be self-critical when we fall off the willpower wagon, even though the research is clear: Negativity is a far less effective motivator than being your own biggest fan. “We tend to think these failures have deeper implications about our own worth and intelligence, which is simply not the case,” Dr. McGonigal explains, adding that a person will often wave the white flag after a small setback as a form of escapism – next stop, the nearest bar/bank machine/bag of chips.
Instead, she says it’s important to give yourself a figurative hug, then regroup. Use even a minor slip-up as chance to recommit and refocus on the end game. Try writing in an achievement journal, which is a great way to keep your head in the game. “Being mindful of your actions is one of the most important factors in avoiding negative behaviour patterns,” she says.
An alternate path to achieving your goals involves a more latent form of willpower, where you simply cease to view the desired behaviour as something you have any choice about. An aspiring runner, for example, may look out the window and decide it’s a crummy day, thus setting into motion a battle between good and evil. “This type of negotiation can only happen if you view the activities as optional,” Dr. McGonigal explains.
Shutting down your inner terrorist isn’t possible for everyone, but doing so will let you achieve goals on auto pilot, thus freeing your brain from endless negotiations about that double fudge brownie.
Find your tribe
No matter how unusual your mission, chances are there are others out there trying to achieve it. In some cases (whether that’s AA or The Running Room), this group will be obvious, while other times finding your tribe will require more effort. “Willpower, just like temptation, is contagious, so finding people who want the same thing as you is invaluable,” Dr. McGonigal explains.
Research groups in your area or online. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find a new set of BFFs, which is especially great if your old BFFs are a pack of chain-smoking, hard-boozing, brownie-eating, TV-watching, slouching hedonists.
And don’t do this: Worry yourself into a frenzy. Self-control is fundamentally incompatible with stress.
Special to The Globe and Mail