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Would you be surprised if I told you that a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association on stress found that “lack of willpower” was the number one reason why people are unable to make healthy lifestyle changes?
According to psychologist scientists, willpower can be defined as the ability to delay gratification. This means that you are able to resist short-term temptations in order to reach long-term goals.
Why resolutions aren't enough
As a society we see this all the time with New Year’s resolutions. Everyone starts with great intentions on January 1st, but then… temptation strikes and of course, we always come up with a rational reason as to why we can break the rule just this one time.
Sometimes it seems like the universe knows when you’re trying to be disciplined and it just wants to test you. Give up alcohol? You’re invited to the social event of the year with an open bar. Go on a diet? Your favorite bakery is handing out your favorite treat on the street as if it’s Christmas. Start an early morning exercise routine? Then one day you randomly begin agreeing that sleep is the most important aspect of self-care (unless it’s at night of course, because that’s when the fun stuff happens) and skip your workout.
We’ve all been there! Whenever we want to make healthy lifestyle changes it can be hard to stay disciplined through the end.
So how do we actually stick to the changes we want to make in our lives?
Well, willpower is great start, but willpower alone is never going to be enough.
The now-versus-later problem
As a whole, we suck at accepting delay of gratification. We want it NOW and if we can’t have it now then we’ll find someone or something else that will get us what we want sooner.
Countless studies have shown that we are a society that wants results now rather than later. One of the most popular, conducted in the 1970s by psychologist Walter Mischel, tested preschool children to see what they would choose when given the option to choose receiving one marshmallow right away or waiting fifteen minutes to earn two. Only about 30% of the participants were able to delay gratification and use their willpower to earn more sweets.
The problem with willpower is that we only have a finite amount of it and whether we realize it or not, we actually use majority of it up on little things that we don’t even think about.
It turns out that our willpower is like a muscle. When it is used over and over, it fatigues and fades as we make more decisions. If we are constantly making decisions, no matter how big they may be, by the end of the day our decision-making muscle just wants to rest and take the easy route. Which means, it’s not going to fight very hard for us to stay disciplined on our diet, exercise, etc.
Have you ever been around a nagging child after you’ve had a long day? Odds are you either snap on the child and lock them in a closet or allow them to eat 10 pounds of candy. Neither being things you would normally do when your willpower and decision-making capabilities aren’t depleted.
“Indeed, the best way to think of willpower is not as some shapeless behavioral trait but as a sort of psychic muscle, one that can atrophy or grow stronger depending on how it’s used.” – Jeffrey Kluger
Here are a few ways to strengthen your willpower muscle and overcome making poor decisions:
Write out your intention and keep it visible
Why are you working to make this change? What is your end goal? Constantly remind yourself of why you’re doing this. There is always a deeper motivation to why we humans do anything in life. When the going gets tough, remind yourself why you started and who or what is counting on you to make this change.
While this may seem like obvious and idiotic advice, hear me out. If you are trying to make a positive change in your life, then don’t torture yourself. The “out of sight, out of mind” idiom is what we want to follow here. If you’re trying to cut back on sweets or stick to a diet, then don’t have a bowl of Reese’s Cups on your desk that you’ll see for hours every single day. Get the temptations away from you!
Create "If-Then" statements
This is going to require you to plan ahead, but that’s a good thing! Think out situations where you might be tempted to get off course, then create an “if-then” statement for it. “If someone asks me for a drink at the bar, then I’m going to ask for a club soda.” “If I feel the urge to look at social media, then I’m going to text and check up on a friend.” By creating these statements in advance you’ll avoid using your willpower to distract yourself. You’ve already decided what will happen next.
“When people have a willpower failure, it’s because they haven’t anticipated a situation that’s going to come along.” – Charles Duhigg
Do your most important tasks first
This is a reason that people work out at the buttcrack of dawn instead of after work. It’s easier to get yourself into an uninterrupted routine first thing in the morning and you don’t have the world clawing for your attention. Whatever is most important to you, make sure you do it in the morning. If you have to do it later in the day, eat first. When you are hangry and your willpower is depleted that is when horrific things can occur.
By setting routines your body and mind will act automatically. When this happens you won’t have to rely on your willpower to keep you on track. This is a step towards accomplishing your goals by putting your body and mind on autopilot.
“Epic production has less to do with your willpower and more to do with the routines you install. Get those right, and you’ll enjoy exponential results automatically.” – Robin S. Sharma
If all else fails, simply hire someone around to slap all the bad food out of your hands, snatch your phone away when necessary, drag you to the gym, or hold you down when it’s time to meditate (wouldn’t that be nice).
In all seriousness, remember that your willpower is going to be stronger some days than others. When willpower isn’t enough to stop you from ordering takeout for the third time this week, remind yourself of your goal, what you’re working towards, and the difference it’ll make in your life. It’s okay if you slip up as long as you don’t fall off the wagon when you cave in. Make small changes every day to set yourself up in the best possible situation to succeed.
A High Performance Coach, specializing in stress management. Erica teaches how to effectively manage stress and live more fulfilled lives. A former athletic coach, Erica works with individuals to prioritize themselves to win the championship within their lives.