The American Psychological Association calls willpower the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. We as humans have wonderful brains that are capable of great willpower. We just need to understand though how it works and what to do to build it. There are many different opinions about willpower.
Some experts believe we have a limited amount daily willpower and if faced with too many temptations we deplete it over time. Others think that if you feel you have no willpower then you won’t so all you need to do is “believe” you have it and you can resist it all. Ten years ago when I decided to lose the excess weight and start exercising, the one thing I realized was that willpower could somehow be built or increased. I discovered that somehow subconsciously I had built mine during my journey.
Recently, I read the book The Willpower Instinct that explained what I had experienced first hand. Willpower is the number one reason people struggle to reach their goals. There are emotions attached to willpower. When we lack willpower, we feel guilty about letting ourselves/others down. We feel that food, cigarettes, alcohol or some other object can dictate our choices rather than our conscious minds. I distinctly remember one day looking at food and thinking, “that piece of food can’t control me. I am a human with a brain”.
To have self-control, you must know how you fail. By this I mean, you have to understand how and what causes you to lose control. This allows you to then to create a plan to avoid pitfalls that lead to failure.
So for example, I used to sit and watch TV in the evening and snack after dinner. I ate out of boredom and because every other commercial was food related. My plan was to keep my hands busy while watching TV and not snack. I started crocheting. I only knew a few stitches, taught to me by my grandma. I just started doing a simple chain back and forth and made it into a scarf. This was not complicated or difficult which made it super easy. It was winter out and a scarf would come in handy. Guess what? It worked and I made a tote of scarves that first winter while working towards a goal. After seeing my many scarves, people started asking me to make scarves. I still have my tote of scarves today as one reminder of how I increased my willpower to achieve a huge goal.
The book references the three parts to willpower. We need to connect all three of them to have willpower to achieve our goals.
When you think of something that is going to require willpower, your first thought is “I must resist temptation”- that second helping of pasta, the third glass of wine or whatever it may be. This is an example of the “I won’t power”. This is saying no when your stomach or heart really wants to say yes.
This means saying “yes” to something that you need to do when part of you doesn’t really want to do it. For example this is stopping at the gym on your way home after a long day at work to keep your training appointment.
To be able to say “no” and “yes” when you need to means being able to remember what you really want. We encourage our clients to remember their WHY. For example, you have a goal to get out of credit card debt this year but you find great deal on a fancy sports car that you think you want. You always have to think of why you have the goal and what you really want. You really want to get out of debt.
A final word, research shows that those who believe they have the most willpower are actually more likely to fall victim to losing control. Self-knowledge is key to self-control. Reflect and know where, when and why you might give in to temptation. Restrict your exposure early in the change process to those things that will tempt you the most. Don’t let a slipup shock you and cause you to stop. Lastly, work on placing desirable habits in place of less desirable ones that will assist you toward your goal. Strive to be consistent, not perfect and stay tuned for more on willpower and how to build it in future articles.