Each evening between 10:30 and 11 pm, my hubby, Les retires to bed. Each morning he rises between 6:30 and 7 am. Regardless the weather, each day he takes 2 to 3 walks and eats 3 conservative sized meals plus one evening sweet treat. Each Sunday he waters the plants and attends Sunday service with me. He has a routine, which protects him from willpower fatigue.
I, on the other hand, am not as disciplined. Actually, I pride myself on my creativity, spontaneity and flexibility. Discipline is not high on my strengths list. I struggle to eat just one square of my favorite almond chocolate bar a day and seldom exercise. A billion-dollar health and fitness industry tells us to develop three simple habits–“Get adequate sleep, eat less, and exercise more.” I fail dreadfully on the last directive. I have paid to exercise—yoga, Pilates, cardio, and aquacise.
Yet I know our bodies need movement. Our brains also need to experience the rhythm of movement. I want to get up most mornings and dedicate at least 15 to 20 minutes to exercise. Plus, I don’t want to give up after one or two mornings and then feel guilty for a month or two until I take another stab at committing to healthier behavior. I want to demonstrate resilience to willpower fatigue.
How? By putting “I will” into the concept of willpower. So I began to explore the concept of discipline and willpower. I felt comforted to discover I am not alone. A Scranton University Project concluded that only 19 percent of people who set goals maintain the improved and changed behavior for two years or more. Change is hard work for all ages.
Advantages of Developing Willpower
We know that having discipline supports successful outcomes. The 1972 marshmallow experiment at Stanford University demonstrated this. Pre-school children who were able to wait longer to eat a marshmallow tended to have better adult success.
Psychologist, Roy Baumeister and writer, John Tierney explored self-control in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The subtitle says it all, ‘greatest human strength’. Without it, we risk giving into addictions ranging from eating chocolate to drug use. Without it, we don’t attain our goals, we give up, we let our dreams die and risk ending life with the disappointing thought, I wish I had.
Barriers to Developing Willpower
1. Our brains become hard wired to our habits. It is easier to follow habits. Research by Wendy Wood psychologist at University of Southern California, found that 40 to 45% of our daily decisions require no effort because they are habits. For example it takes little decision-making power to daily brush your teeth, get dressed, and eat breakfast. Note: if these aren’t built into your wellness habits, they need to be.
2. Willpower to change behavior requires focus and effort. Hence the term, willpower fatigue. The more changes we make, the more willpower we need. My niece felt exhausted after her wedding. All the decisions and changes in her daily routine wore on her brain.
3. We are bombarded with quick fixes which often are not the best for us. These quick fixes range from fast food to television remotes which do not require us to get off the couch to change the channel. Think of the familiar phrase, the path of least resistance.
How to Avoid Willpower Fatigue
Researchers have not only explained the importance of willpower, but have provided ways to avoid it slipping away. Here are some tips to help you keep your resolve.
1. Set realistic goals. Use the acronym, SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, with a timeline. Leave some flex for these smart ideas which are explained below.
2. Limit your goals, most often to one. Realize your willpower ability, just like a muscle, is limited until it is strengthened. Avoid making too many changes at one time. Don’t give birth to a newborn and plan to run a marathon at the same time.
3. Pair your goals with your passion. I have a passion for psychology. I have paired getting on the tread mill with listening to the podcast, Psychology Book Club. In Angela Duckworth’s research, TEDTalk and book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance she describes the importance of passion with commitment. It is easy for me to demonstrate willpower to learn a new therapeutic technique. But for me, I need to strategize getting consistent exercise. Duckworth also discovered that working hard leads to success more effectively than talent or being born with a high IQ.
4. Strategically use the power of behavioral cues and rewards. The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Charles Duhigg, authored The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. He describes how he struggled to stop daily purchasing and eating cookies at his workplace cafeteria. He figured out that his real reward was socializing with co-workers. He provided a cue to go visit colleagues in a different environment and rewarded himself with ample chat time. If you want to exercise more routinely, consider placing running shoes by your bed as a cue. Then provide a reward during or after you demonstrate willpower, as I have done with my psychology podcasts. Another reward I have built in is to mix walking with socializing. “Will you meet me in a park to walk and talk?”
5. Use the idea of growth mindset. Build your mind to consider the consequences of supportive and poor decisions. Your brain needs exercise to build a willpower muscle, to resist giving in to a poor habit impulse. Decision fatigue leads to willpower fatigue. Help your brain by getting adequate sleep. When we are sleep deprived, we tend to make impulsive decisions and not have the focus required to make long lasting change. Feed your brain energy with nutritious food. Plan daily decisions the night before. Save your brain some energy by not repeatedly making decisions throughout the day. Write a nightly To Do list of tasks for the next day, those not included in your routine.
6. Commit. When it comes to new and important goals consider it not just a decision but a commitment to yourself.
7. Better manage your stress. Relationship conflicts, loss, mistakes, poor behavior of other people, and forced change such as workplace demands take a toll on our brains. Then we are at risk of willpower fatigue and vulnerable to giving into urges.
8. Remind yourself that you have an internal locus of control. You get to decide. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, described the space we have between thought or impulse and taking action.
9. Keep temptation cues out of sight. Out of sight equals out of mind. My chocolate is tucked in a higher cupboard. Once I get my new habit in place, I might make a conscious decision to treat myself to a small square.
10. Use the 20-second Rule. Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage discovered what helped us with decision resolve. It is easier to make your new healthy behavior achievable when you can initiate it 20 seconds faster. The same is true if you make your poor or autopilot habits 20 seconds further away and slower to act on. To access my chocolate, I need to get a chair and climb up to reach it.
11. Take pride in your increased ability to self-control and delay gratification. You will notice your self-trust increase. With self-trust comes the ability to set loftier goals. A middle-aged man I know has talked for years about saving money for a house down payment. Yet, he does not have the self-control to not let shiny objects such as electronics and fancy cars distract him.
12. Add some self-compassion. If you relapse, be easy on yourself and know you are resilient. You can recover. Your self-control is like a muscle, it can be strengthened. Start again!
Here’s a little reminder to help keep your willpower resolve:
Here is another resource. Charles Duhigg’s TEDx Talk. is a wonderful 16-minute summary of how habits and willpower can be developed.
With the knowledge and techniques above, and with practice, you can increase your willpower, resilience, and fortitude. Now, will I? Now, will you?
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Patricia Morgan MA CCC helps her readers, clients, and audiences lighten their load, brighten their outlook, and strengthen their resilience. To go from woe to WOW call 403.242.7796 or email a request.