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Exercise those willpower muscles

As resolutions made on January 1st - exercise more, drink less, see friends more often, improve my German (guilty as charged) - begin to fall away, it can be tempting to tell yourself that you are simply no good at self-control. A familiar phrase I hear from clients and see on social media from friends and family is “I just don’t have any willpower”.


However, I believe that willpower is something that can be practiced and not something you are born with; people’s willpower varies depending on the situation at hand and ultimately, everyone can be more effective about where and when to flex their willpower muscles.


The following are a few ways we can develop our willpower.


Make sure you know yourself


To maximise the likelihood of sticking to our goals, we need to recognise our willpower profile; some folks are more impulsive than others. If you are innately introvert, there is a tendency to be galvanised by ideas and thoughts; you may find it easier to be driven by an inner vision. Extroverts on the other hand tend to get motivated by other people and social approval. For introverts, setting aside time to reflect on progress, in a diary perhaps, may be helpful. Conversely, for extroverts, signing up for a group where everyone has a common goal (ParkRun, German language classes, etc) can help to strengthen individual resolve, as can sharing your progress.


One goal at a time


A common problem I see with my clients at this time of year is the lure of the total life overhaul; “I’m going to give up alcohol in January, go to the gym 5 times a week, get promoted at work, learn a language and do 10 hours of charity work a week”. My advice would be to not work on multiple resolutions. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that intentions are most successful when focussed on a single goal at any one time; those who tried to act on more than one goal simultaneously were ultimately less successful at persevering with their plans. Which brings me on to…


Make a (specific) plan


Planning is important because the brain likes to form a story, it likes order and it also enjoys feeling like it’s in control. If you don’t have a representation in your mind of how you are going to achieve a goal, then you are going to struggle in sustaining a goal.


Our brains are inherently lazy so regular reminders and visual clues can be helpful. I have a goal of making sure I drink at least 2 litres of water every day (more if I’m exercising). This sounds like a good goal but just saying it is not always enough to nudge me into action. In order to make this goal part of my brain’s story, I keep a 500ml water bottle on my desk at work, I have a post-it on my desk with a picture of the desert and I also keep a tick tally sheet on my computer desktop.


The aim is to be more deliberate when planning goals; saying “I’m going to learn German this year” doesn’t give the brain anything to cling on to, regular reminders or visual clues. This is just an idea, not a plan.


In summary, a plan for the above goal could be “I’m going to sign up to beginner German lessons at Exeter college. These take place every Wednesday at 19:00 for 10 weeks. Additionally, I am going to download and listen to the Coffee Break German podcast every week. Lastly, I am going to attend the German speaking MeetUp meetings that take place in Exeter in order to practice my German with native speakers”.


The fear of succeeding..?


If you are not progressing towards your goal, it may be that you are afraid of what happens after the goal has been achieved. There may be a feeling of deflation, there may be a sense of “Now what” or there may be a realisation that successful completion of the goal did not lead to the outcome you desired. The problem is, these are unknowns. If you have doubts about whether you are “deliberately” not progressing towards your goal, it may be worth looking out for “somatic responses”; feeling sick, having unusual aches or being mysteriously tired. There is a chance that you may be experiencing feelings of anxiety about your goal completion.


Determine your why


It appears that everyone holds some willpower for “emergencies”. Studies show that participants unexpectedly discovered additional self-control to perform a task after being informed they would be paid for their effort, or that their contribution would benefit others. Knowing your “why” can help you to generate motivation when other factors may be telling you to call it a day.


Acquaint yourself with the future


A key reason why your willpower may falter is that you view your future self as unfamiliar; people generally have goals in order to change something about themselves or develop in some way. This means that what you want to change to is different to what you are now. This can be challenging for some people to grasp and to accept. If you are you able to feel close to, caring toward, and similar to your future self there is a greater chance of being successful attaining goals linked to the positive change.


Accept and learn from obstacles


It is important to distinguish between a lapse and a relapse. A relapse might be not going to the gym for four weeks whereas a lapse might be missing one or morning gym sessions due to a late night the previous day. It is important to use lapses as learning experiences. If you ask yourself why you had a late night and why you then missed your morning gym session, it will be easier to keep an eye out for the warning signs for next time. Or, it might be that you juggle your day around to still enjoy the late night but go to the gym later in the day. This is a very simple strategy when working through the implementation of your goals.


Don’t be disheartened


Be kind to yourself. As per the above, lapses will invariably occur; anticipate and plan for them. Try to be sympathetic if you suffer a setback. Distinguish between effort and results and reward yourself for effort. Habits are deeply ingrained and modifying them or creating new ones is hard! There will be lapses along the way; if these cause you to become negative or critical your willpower will decrease.


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