I used to tell myself that if I had more willpower I would be killing it on all goals. From writing that book to going to bed on time, I used to think I’d get all those things done (today) if I only had more willpower. But that’s when I didn’t understand the nature of willpower. I didn’t understand how it works, how to organically develop it, and why in some situations, it’s not even about that.
Using the ideas I share in The Guide to Make Your Life Awesome, I’m becoming more and more disciplined, which is another way of saying, I’m developing willpower. But I’m still only disciplined in certain areas of my life—paper and paperwork are still the banes of my existence! And I still struggle with willpower (or self-control) when I’m under stress.
The level of discipline I have today grew organically, and without me forcing it. In fact, I don’t think I would be at the level I am at now had I continued worrying about how much (or how little) willpower I had. It was more helpful for me, and I think it will be the same for you, to understand what willpower is, then ignore it.
With that said, a little willpower education is in order here.
Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably) in this mini willpower primer:
- It takes work to develop willpower. Just like you wouldn’t expect to be a great basketball player after a few practice games, you shouldn’t expect to be a willpower-pro overnight.
- You and I have more self-control when we’re paying attention and not operating on autopilot, tried, or under stress.
- Our willpower is at its peak when we start anything: At the beginning of the day, the first day of your diet, the beginning of a new relationship, and on January 1st.
- Because willpower is driven by our emotions, you’ll have more of it when you’re feeling good and less of it 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, or vice versa.
- Psychologists call willpower a renewable resource. Your cell phone battery is too. And like your phone, you could start the day fully charged and need to recharge your willpower battery in the afternoon.
- If you skimp on sleep, you shouldn’t expect to have much willpower at all. That’s like forgetting to charge your phone overnight.
- Part of developing willpower is to be able to rely on yourself to keep your word. You erode your willpower and confidence when you constantly cheat yourself and not try harder to keep your personal commitments.
- Willpower is a human thing… and because you’re human, you should expect you (and your willpower) to be imperfect.
It was by learning to get things done, despite my imperfect procrastinating self, that I grew more and more disciplined. These are some of the habits that I found most helpful:
1. Get your goals done early
When you get your goals or healthy habits done early in the day, you get them out of the way. You start the day having ticked off something important from your to-do list. 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 going to the gym by 6:00 a.m. Now that I exercise first thing in the morning, I exercise at least 95% of the time vs. around 60% of the time before. No amount of willpower helped me juggle my competing priorities in the evenings. No amount of willpower could will me to care about my fat arse when I’m driving home bone-tired after a long hard day at work.
2. Support Yourself
Because doing well is linked to our emotions, I’ve learned to do everything I can to support myself and keep my energy (and emotions) up. I make time for fun and games, beauty treats, and the other things that help me feel good. My Major Lazer playlists, sleep and asking for help are my go-to emotional aids. And I’ve learned something useful about sleep deprivation that I think everyone needs to know: If it’s a constant for you, you’ll NEVER ever be successful at goals that require self-control, like weight management. Ever. The reason is that sleep deprivation makes you more emotionally sensitive and reactive. We all mess up under those conditions.
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 that they should be diligent around alcohol. The truth is, when it comes to certain foods and cravings, many people ARE addicts and would benefit from labeling themselves as addicts. With this awareness, you’re more likely to remember to stay away from the thing you have little control over. I call myself a sugar-addict and lean toward a Keto diet to help keep me honest. It works.
4. Fully commit to your goal
A mental shift happens when you FULLY commit to your goals. It’s a lot 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!” When you apply that commitment to working out, you start making choices like getting up 30 minutes earlier to exercise. If that requires re-working your TV watching schedule to get to bed earlier, you’ll do that. You’ll do whatever it takes. No willpower needed, just real commitment.
Meditation can help you stick to just about any goal you’re working on. It lets you have more patience with yourself when you slip up, more awareness so you see problems before they happen, and you’ll be giving yourself kinder self-talk so your mood and energy can stay stable.
6. Willpower-proof your environment
You make it easier to keep your newly organized closet organized if you add a hook behind your bedroom door to hang your clothes when you get home. And removing the junk food from your kitchen will remove the temptation if you’re trying to eat healthier. Do that type of common-sense willpower-proofing for any habit that you struggle with because when you willpower-proof your environment, you set yourself up for success.
You don’t want to rely on willpower or some perfect (future) version of yourself to stick to your goals and good intentions today. But you can use habits and strategies to rack up more wins now that you know willpower is just you at your stable best. So stop worrying about what you don’t have (heaps of willpower) and work with what you do have (a ton of strategies to game life!).
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Organize Tomorrow Today by Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, et al
Christine is a lifestyle coach living in Los Angeles. She believes the way we live affects everything we do, especially our motivation.