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?
It turns out that’s not necessarily true. That’s because any number of things can drain our willpower—and just when you need it, you’ve got no willpower left.
There are a lot of similarities between your willpower and the battery on your phone. If you charged your phone overnight, it will be fully charged in the morning. Depending on a few things, your phone can stay charged until you’re ready to go to bed; the number of apps you used in a given day, the type of apps you use, the age of your phone and your service provider and the phone plan you have. All this can be said about you. Like your phone, your willpower drains as the day goes on so you don’t know if you’ll have any when you need it.
What you need to know about willpower
They say knowledge is power, and in this case, a little knowledge can help you master your willpower. Or better yet, make it irrelevant. Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably)
- 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 after a few tries.
- We have more self-control when we’re self-aware and paying attention. That means when we’re not operating on autopilot, tried or under 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 most things, we’re hopeful and full of high ideals (This is gonna be my year!!! 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 your mother, but not to a donut.
- 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.
- It’s 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 person we are now (not the person we hope to become). We must find strategies to help the current version of ourselves—with shakey willpower—succeed. You have to think like this: 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, they can help you come up with customized strategies and be more targeted, but these I find to be reliable strategies that will work for just about anyone. At least for now when you don’t’ have the strongest willpower, rely on these strategies.
1. Get your goals done early
Do your goals or healthy habits early in the day. You will 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.
2. Support Yourself
When you support yourself, you help yourself avoid or better manage stress. You want to support yourself because the biggest (and often the only thing) that affects your self-control is your emotions. You should have routines and wellness habits that you do regularly. You should make time for fun and games, entertainment and beauty treats. Whatever helps you perform at your best, should be part of your routine. These are 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 a local route that’s more scenic. As I’m jamming in my car to my 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 need it. I will set reminders to book flights 30 days 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. When you’re rested, you’ll be in a better mood and will have more impulse control.
- Afternoon recharge. When your phone’s battery is around 10%, you know you’re at a critical level and need to charge it. I don’t know what the equivalent of that is in human terms, but for me, it usually happens around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Thankfully, it’s no longer a daily thing but when it happens, I take a few minutes to recharge. I’ll go outside for a little sunshine, have positive pep-talks, exercise, have a cold drink on a hot day, listen to music, eat a high-protein snack, drink water, re-apply my lipstick, have some retail therapy, get my nails or hair done, or leave work early. Call it a mental health break or whatever you want, but if you’re tuned into your moods, you can tell when you’re going to need to some quick pick-me-up.
- 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