If you're like many people, you're struggling with willpower right about now. You started the year with a lot of resolutions for improving your health and your professional life, and possibly a brand-new gym membership. But within less than a month, it's an enormous effort to stick to those plans. Perhaps you've already given up on them.
It's not your fault. Seriously, it isn't. The problem lies in the way we think about willpower, which is dead wrong. We act like it's a muscle that can be strengthened with regular use, when actually the opposite is true. If you're forcing yourself to stumble out of bed at 5 am so you can get to the gym, you might think it would get easier the more times you go, but it doesn't. It gets harder.
That's because of the nature of willpower. It isn't like a muscle that strengthens with use, it's like a bank account that gets more depleted the more you draw on it. "We try to use willpower and self-discipline to make changes, when research shows that's an easily exhausted resource," comments Jenny C. Evans, a speaker on resiliency and performance, and author of The Resiliency rEvolution. "The more we use it, the less we have."
Does that mean we should just give up on making changes in our lives? No. But it does mean we need a different approach than most of us have been using all these years. Here are some ideas:
1. Forgive yourself.
If you're anything like me, you've spent much of your life yelling at yourself for your various self-discipline failures. But those failures just mean that you're a normal person whose brain works just like everyone else's. Instead of scolding yourself for screwing up yet again, try looking at the problem in a different way. Find things you can do that will make it easy--ideally almost effortless--to make the changes you want. Instead of trying to grow more willpower, devise strategies that allow you to use less of it.
2. Spend your willpower wisely.
Just as you wouldn't empty your bank account (at least, I hope you wouldn't), don't spend down your willpower any faster than you need to. Every time you can, make your new healthier habit into something that happens automatically so that you don't have to make a decision at all.
If you want to save, set up automatic 401(k) contributions from your paycheck or automatic transfers into a savings or money market account. If you want to make sure you work out, set up a weekly date with a friend, so that you'll have to actually cancel the date if you don't want to go. If you want to eat less, try switching from 12-inch dinner plates to 10-inch ones--this change alone will make you eat 22 percent less, Evans says. Do everything you can to save your willpower, so you'll have it available when you truly need it.
3. Use your willpower in short bursts.
If you absolutely must use your willpower, find ways to use it for brief periods so that you won't run it out too badly for too long. For instance, instead of deciding you'll never eat sugar again, do what a couple of my friends are doing right now and challenge yourself to give up sugar for 30 days. Or for one or two days out of the week. This will encourage you to look for other things to eat that you may like with no sugar in them, and will give you a chance to learn what foods taste like without sugar in them. If you do this for 30 days you may even naturally form some non-sugar-eating habits.
4. Create a willpower-free microclimate for yourself.
Evans counsels people to create what she calls "an environment of optimal defaults." This is a world you construct for yourself in which it's easy--perhaps easiest--to make the right choices. Switching to smaller plates is one example of what she means by this. So is having healthy snacks in your bag or briefcase, as well as in your desk, so that it's actually more effort to go buy a donut at the coffee cart than it is to eat a nutritious snack.
5. Find ways to distract yourself.
In the famous "marshmallow test" experiment that measured children's ability to resist eating a marshmallow for 20 minutes in order to receive a second marshmallow, the children who were most successful didn't focus on the sugary treat. Instead, they distracted themselves with something else. Similarly, if you want to avoid a negative but pleasurable behavior, find something less negative but equally pleasurable to do instead. When New York Times reporter and The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg wanted to change his practice of eating a cookie around 3:30 every afternoon, he experimented and figured out that he was really craving a break from work and a few minutes of social interaction. He was able to replace the cookie habit with going over to someone else's desk for a 10-minute chat, or drinking a cup of tea and socializing in the cafeteria.
6. Use mental imagery.
The fastest way to send a message to your own brain is with an image, according to Carla Street, managing director, leadership and training at First Investors Financial Services. You can use an image to calm yourself down, or cheer yourself up, and you can also use one as a powerful motivator. For example, research shows that people are more inclined to save for retirement after seeing digitally created images of their older selves. And marshmallow test creator Walter Mischel was only able to quit his three-pack-a-day smoking habit after he met a man with advanced lung cancer and began visualizing that man every time he wanted a cigarette.
7. Make very tiny changes.
The smaller the better, Evans says. This way, you can avoid setting off the cave dweller she says resides in all our brain, ready to react powerfully to big changes, which are perceived as big threats. The smaller a change is, the easier it is to maintain. Once the small change has become a habit, you can build on it with another small change, and so on.
8. Follow your bliss.
What is bliss doing in a column about willpower? Simple: The changes that you are most likely to maintain are the ones you enjoy the most. So if you're a night owl who likes sleeping as late as possible, don't try forcing yourself out of bed early in the morning to work out. Pick a time of day when you're more likely to find your workout refreshing and fun (early evening works for me). Choose activities based on your enjoyment, not just on getting the best workout.
The fewer decisions you have to make, and the more fun something is, the greater the likelihood that you'll stick with it, and wind up seeing real results. That sounds pretty blissful to me.