We like to think that if only we had more willpower we would achieve all sorts of noble goals. From writing that book to going to bed on time, we’d get it done if we only had more willpower, right? As we’re learning from neuroscientists and behavioral experts, that’s not necessarily true. You see, any number of unpredictables can drain our willpower, and just when we need it, poof, our willpower is gone.
And drained is just the right word for what’s going on with willpower. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between your willpower and the battery in your phone: If you charged your phone overnight, it will be fully charged in the morning. You too if you got a good night’s sleep. My phone’s battery is usually at around 35% in the afternoon, same for me if I don’t recharge. Depending on the number and type of apps you use, you can drain your battery even faster. Then there are those apps that are running in the background without your knowledge! I think of our “apps” as the people and situations we face on a daily basis and the ones running in the background as our basic constitution—how we’re running in the background.
They say knowledge is power, and in this case, a little knowledge can help you master your willpower. The smartphone battery analogy is a good place to start but I want to give you a little more education on the subject. Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably) in this quick tutorial.
- It takes work to develop willpower. Just like you can’t expect to be a great basketball player after just a few games, you shouldn’t expect to be a willpower-pro without putting in the time.
- You and I have more self-control when we’re self-aware and paying attention. Meaning, when we’re not operating on autopilot, tried, or under too much stress.
- Our willpower is at its peak when we start anything: On January 1st (the start of a new year), on the first day of your diet, the beginning of a new relationship, and the start of a new day. At the start of things, we’re hopeful and full of high ideals. We tell ourselves, “This is gonna be my year!!!” and “I’m doing it this time!“
- Because it’s driven by emotions, you will have more self-control when you’re feeling good than when you’re not.
- You’ll have more self-control over some things than others. You may be able to say no to an overbearing mother, but not to a donut, for example.
- Psychologists call willpower a renewable resource (again, much like your cell phone). And like your phone, you may need to recharge your willpower battery during the day.
- If you skim on sleep, you shouldn’t expect to have much willpower at all. It’s like forgetting to charge your phone overnight.
- Willpower is a human thing… and because you’re human, you should expect you (and your willpower) to be imperfect.
The morale of the willpower story is that you can’t rely on it!
In order to stick to any goal, you and I must work with the imperfect people we are now (not the version of ourselves we hope to become). We must find strategies to help the current version of ourselves succeed. We have to ask ourselves: How can I succeed at this goal/task/you name it, in spite of myself?
The answer is there are all sorts of ways to.
Working with a life coach or lifestylist like me, you can help yourself come up with customized targeted strategies to reach your goals, despite of yourself. But if you can’t work with someone or until you can, rely on these strategies and habits that make having willpower virtually irrelevant.
1. Get your goals done early
When you get your goals or healthy habits in early in the day, you get it out of the way and because you won’t want to sabotage your hard work later in the day, you’ll be less tempted by other unhealthy habits. I changed my exercise game completely when I started getting to the gym before 6:00 a.m. It’s been the single biggest change I’ve made to transform my consistency. I’ve always liked going to the gym. I want to look good and healthy, and for health purposes, I need to exercise. But as much as I wanted and needed to exercise regularly when I used to do it later in the day, something always came up or I would feel too tired to want to at least half the time. Now that I do it first thing in the morning, I’m at nearly 95% consistency.
2. Support Yourself
You want to support yourself because the biggest (and often the only thing) that affects your self-control is your emotions. And remember, your interest and motivation is tied to your emotions. You want to have routines and wellness habits that you do regularly. You want to make time for fun and games, entertainment and beauty treats. Whatever helps you perform at your best, should be part of your routine. Let me share some of the ways I support myself.
- Time management. It’s an art that I’m perfecting. I used to be a world-class procrastinator, but I’ve learned that that doesn’t work for me. Plus, it’s not a good look. I now do things like add 10-15 minutes to my morning commute time. This allows me to avoid the highway and take local roads that are more scenic. As I’m jamming in my car to a Diplo playlist, I’ll look over at some poor sucker totally stressing because traffic isn’t moving. I’ll pick out my clothes from the night before. I’ll look at projects long before they’re due and divide them up into tasks. This gives me time to ask others for help if I might need it. I will set reminders to book flights 30 days or 3 months out. For the hour that I’m on the treadmill, I often listen to a podcast or get some work done. A lot of the times though, I’m watching Charmed re-runs.
- Sleep. I can’t stress enough how important rest is to our productivity and success. Let me tell you something (if you haven’t already figured it out): If sleep deprivation is a constant thing for you, you’ll never ever be successful at goals that require self-control, like weight management. Sleep deprivation makes you more emotionally sensitive and reactive.
- Afternoon recharge. When your phone’s battery is around 10%, you know you’re at a critical level and need to charge it. I now always take a few minutes to recharge in the afternoons and it’s boosted my productivity. I’ll do things like go outside for a little sunshine, have positive pep-talks, have a cold drink on a hot day (or a hot one on a cold day), listen to music, eat a high-protein snack, re-apply my lipstick, have some retail therapy, get my nails or hair done, or leave work early. Consider it taking mental health breaks or whatever you want to, but I now see afternoon recharges as essential pick-me-ups that just so happen to boost my productivity.
- Asking for help is yet another great way to support yourself. I’m a coach and I always hire a coach to help me with certain things. That’s because I know I do better with help. And I always say yes when help is offered.
3. Think of yourself as an addict
I’m in the business of encouraging people and will never tell anyone to give themselves disparaging labels, but there’s a reason people who haven’t had a drink in 10 years label themselves alcoholics. They do it because this reminds them they have to be diligent around alcohol. It reminds them that the consequences of falling off the wagon are high for them.
The truth is, when it comes to certain foods and cravings, many people are addicts and would benefit from labeling themselves as addicts. Staying away from the thing you have little control over may be easier than dealing with the consequences of indulging in those vices.
4. Really commit to your goal
A mental shift happens when you REALLY commit to your goals. Think of it like taking your relationship with your bae from casual to committed. When you really (and fully) commit you’re saying, “This is important to me and I’m going to stop half-assing it!” You will get up 30 minutes earlier to exercise or will re-work your TV watching schedule to get to bed by 11 at night. When you have this type of motivation and a compelling reason why you want the thing you’re going after, you’ll rarely need willpower.
Meditation can help you stick to just about any goal today while it helps you develop more self-control for tomorrow. It lets you have more patience with yourself when you slip up, more awareness so you see problems before they happen, and kinder self-talks.
6. Willpower-proof your environment
It will be easier to keep your newly organized closet organized if you add a hook behind the bedroom door to hang up your clothes when you get home. And to have more control over your diet, removing the junk food from your kitchen will remove the temptation. This willpower-proofing sets up your environment for you to succeed. It makes it easier for you to do the right thing or make healthier options more attractive.
You don’t want to rely on willpower or some perfect (future) version of yourself to stick to your goals and good intentions. You will have more wins if you understand the nature of willpower and your own nature (as you are today), then work with both for better results.
Willpower is fickle and you’re human. These are good reasons not to rely on it alone.
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Organize Tomorrow Today by Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, et al