“Giving in is a choice, and not an inevitable one.” Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct
One way to call on your willpower when you need it is to keep your long-term goals in the forefront. (I want power). You can also build up your willpower reserves by getting more sleep, meditating, finding time for relaxation each day, getting more physical exercise, and breaking down large tasks into short actionable items that will take advantage of the dopamine producing side of your brain.
But why do we need to build up willpower reserves at all? Why do we run out of willpower? And what can we do to make more of it?
Turns out that self control is like a muscle. Roy F. Bauermeister, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Florida State University put forth this hypothesis back in 2007 in his groundbreaking paper, The Strength Model of Self-Control: He later took his ideas mainstream in his 2011 NY Times Bestseller with John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
If you’ve ever exerted yourself physically, you know that your muscles get fatigued. Self-control operates in the same way. The more self-control you use — the more you call on it every day to either resist doing something you shouldn’t or compel yourself to do something you should (like your daily writing) – the more you deplete it. What’s more, self-control, like your muscles, is not task specific. If I spend all morning gardening, I’m going to be sore by the time I head out for that walk in the woods with my husband. For self-control, this means that resisting those cookies in the break room, sitting through that boring meeting, or holding your tongue when your mother-in-law pushes your buttons, can actually make it harder for you to find the discipline to sit down and write.
Okay, then, I’ll just go ahead and eat those cookies, skip the boring meeting (and bring on the wrath of my coworkers who actually went) and tell my mother-in-law exactly what I think. While that may sound lovely, it’s just really going to bring more chaos and havoc into your life. There is a better way. Just like a muscle, self-control can be strengthened through regular practice. That’s right – by doing some self-control reps every day, you can strengthen your self-control muscle so that it lasts longer before conking out on you.
Willpower training exercises are those exercises that help you become aware of what you are about to do and strengthen your ability to choose to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest. Here are some suggestions from Kelly McGonigal:
- Pick a small automatic behavior and try to change it. Open doors with your non-dominant hand. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Train yourself to pause before acting through little willpower challenges throughout the day. This trains you to pay attention to some of your usual automatic behaviours, making it more likely that you will pay attention to the big stuff as well.
- Introduce a new small habit into your day that you don’t already do for the practice of habit building and not making excuses. For example, say good morning to at least one person when you come into the office each day. If you already do this, then kudos to you! I find that most people just trudge in, half-zombie-like, and head straight to their designated corner. You could also try saying hello to some stranger you pass on your way to wherever you are going every morning.
- Stop doing something you don’t want to do that is small. For example, try to stop saying “um” or “like” when you talk. Just as you are not going to build up your muscles by lifting the heaviest weight in the gym on the first day, you aren’t going to build up your self-control by resisting a totally open and exposed box of chocolates on day one. Think baby steps.
- Keep track of something that you don’t normally track. For example, write down how many cups of coffee you drink every day, how much you are spending, or how many glasses of water you drink.
And as before any type of exercise, make sure you fuel your body well first. When your blood sugar drops, your brain seeks ways to conserve energy, and one of those ways is to not fight impulses, which require a lot of self-control and therefore a lot of glucose. When you are hungry you are more likely to engage in procrastinating behaviours such as checking your email or surfing the net than staying on task. Keep your blood sugar steady by eating a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates and fats every 4-6 hours. And eat a good breakfast – Don’t skip breakfast!