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Building Willpower

‘Tis the season of resolutions. Most of us have had experience with struggling to sustain resolutions whether this be to eat less junk food, stop smoking, curb spending or exercise more regularly. The ability to resist short-term enjoyment in pursuit of long-term objectives is commonly referred to as willpower.

Research studies done with children and then followed up in their teens and again in their forties have shown how the ability to exercise willpower early in life correlates with better grades, higher self-esteem, lower substance abuse rates, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health.

A well-known theorist in the study of willpower Walter Mishel theorized that we have “hot” and “cool” systems – hot being the one that responds emotionally and cool the one that responds rationally. When an emotionally charged stimulus overrides the rational system, willpower fails and we indulge. His theory was later supported by functional MRI studies that showed reduced activity on the cognitive regions of the brain of individuals with low self-control.

Further studies have taught us that repeatedly resisting temptation appears to reduce the ability to resist future temptations. For example research participants asked to contain their emotions while viewing a sad movie gave up sooner on a test of physical stamina than did participants who were allowed to react normally. In another study people were placed in front of a plate of freshly baked cookies and a bowl of radishes; those who were denied the cookies and instructed to eat the radishes gave up more than ten minutes sooner on a puzzle task than those who were allowed to indulge in the cookies. Additional studies demonstrated that individuals who repeatedly contain or control their reactions have lower blood glucose levels than do people whose willpower has not been diminished.

These studies have led researchers to view willpower like a muscle that gets tired when overused and while this can have serious repercussions for a wide range of behaviors, building the muscle of willpower has promising implications. Like a muscle you can strengthen willpower over time which expands its applicability. Research participants who sustained an exercise program did better on a lab measure of self-control than did participants who were not assigned an exercise regimen. These same participants also reported less smoking and drinking less alcohol, eating healthier food, monitoring their spending more carefully and improving their study habits. Regularly exercising their willpower with physical exercise led to better willpower in nearly all areas of their lives.

In order to prevent willpower depletion, you need to focus on one goal at a time. Once a single, clear goal is accomplished and established as part of your routine you will free up willpower for your next goal. The bonus embedded in this recommendation is that tackling realistic, achievable goals one at a time will build willpower. Here are some other ways to build willpower:

•Actively monitor your progress on these goals since tracking progress improves outcome.
• Don’t let a slip-up take you off track.
• Make a reasonable plan to meet your goal and recommit each day to making progress toward that goal. Even if this progress is slow going you will still build willpower.
• Develop implementation intentions. These intentions take the form of “if-then” statements that help people plan for situations that are likely to hinder their resolve. Use slip ups to refine these implementation intentions. For example, someone who’s watching her alcohol intake might tell herself before a party, “If anyone offers me a drink, then I’ll ask for club soda with lime.” Research among adolescents and adults has found that implementation intentions improve self-control even among people whose willpower has been depleted.
• Having a plan in place ahead of time allows you to make decisions in the moment without having to draw on your willpower.
• Surround yourself with people you trust and who you know will be supportive of your goals and willing to help you succeed.
• Motivation has also been shown to boost willpower. Those who exercise self-control in order to please others cannot sustain it as long as those who are driven by internal goals. This indicates that if you can identify your values and translate these into clear and specific goals you may be able to persevere even when your willpower strength has been depleted.
• It also appears that eating regular healthy meals and snacks, may help prevent the effects of willpower depletion by maintaining steady blood-glucose levels. Don’t confuse glucose for sugar snacks however, you will prevent reductions in glucose more effectively with complex carbohydrates.
• Strategies such as distraction and the avoidance of temptation by keeping temptations out of sight have been shown to help.
• Positive emotions and attitudes also appear to increase willpower. This underlines the importance of not criticizing ourselves for set-backs and getting support to sustain positivity in spite of the challenge.

We encourage you to apply these ideas to help build your willpower in the service of your goals. If you are struggling give one of us a call and we will help you to identify the areas that are causing you problems and help you to develop a plan.

Written by: Shawna Atkins, Ph.D., OPQ


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