Is there anything in your life that you would like to change? Maybe you have some unhealthy habits or you crave a change of career? Do you need to learn to unplug and get off social media?
If anything jumps to mind when you think about making changes for your health, happiness and success, willpower will be essential to achieving this goal, and so this blog might be of interest to you!
Recently I read a great book call The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. Released in 2011, it’s by no means a new book, but it was my first time coming into contact with the work of this fantastic author, and as the saying goes, better late than never! It ended up being just the right book for me to read right now as I try to make my own positive changes.
McGonigal examines the research and science behind this mysterious and often elusive quality. What makes us give up? What physiological changes happen as willpower rises and falls? What can we do on a daily basis to strengthen our willpower? Whether it feels like it or not, we all have willpower. The key is to find out exactly how to nurture yours.
In this blog, I’m going to share my own takeaways from The Willpower Instinct and the tips and tricks I will be using in my own life. I hope you find them useful too!
There are two of you – get to know them better
When you struggle with changing something in your life, you usually hear two voices: one telling you to do it because it’s what’s best long-term, and the other which restrains you. This second voice is usually more visceral. It can be the voice of fear, because you don’t want to leave your comfort zone, or the voice of impulse and craving. An example of this would be the impulse to smoke if you are trying to quit.
Whenever you feel torn between these two voices, take time to stand back and recognise them. Hear what they are telling you and accept that this is how you feel and it is a struggle. This is the first, essential step to challenging them.
Pause and plan strategy
To feel and act on our willpower, we need to activate our prefrontal cortex, which helps us to make intelligent choices. Unfortunately, this area of the brain is usually overpowered when we are under high levels of stress, pressure or are low on energy, and our more base, impulsive thinking takes control. This makes it difficult to stick to our well-intentioned plans, and if you are trying to quit smoking or lose weight, this is where people often end up reaching for a cigarette or an unhealthy treat.
In order to reconnect with the more intelligent and forward thinking part of our brains, we need to pause and focus. And do you know what advice McGonigal gives to do this? Mindful breathing. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you know I am a big fan of mindfulness, and here it is yet again a tool for reaching your full potential.
By pausing and taking some deep breaths, we are sending a signal to our brain that there is no danger and that we can take the time to think in a more measured and less impulse driven way. Equally important to mindfulness is food and sleep. If we are thirsty, hungry, or sleepy, our brain is focused on addressing those core needs and is not in a space for long term strategy and planning.
So, to build your willpower, take care of your physical energy and practice mindful breathing!
Willpower is like a muscle – you can train it
I found this learning especially interesting! If you are struggling to make big changes, e.g. stopping smoking or starting to exercise, you can experiment with smaller, more manageable changes first. This can help to build your willpower and your chances of making successful larger changes. Try to think of something useful, e.g. brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand can help create new neural pathways and therefore boost creativity. Short daily walks can be a great mental health break. Try these small changes first and build your confidence to take on bigger ones.
Why do you want that change?
Imagine what your life will look like after you have successfully changed. This is not only about visualisation. It is about feeling it in your body. What kind of emotions would you embrace after the change is made? How would you feel? This kind of thinking is central to making progress. Your brain doesn’t recognise whether your thoughts are present, future or past. By programming your thinking in a specific way, you can manoeuvre your brain into that mentality. Imagining your emotions after change teaches your body to follow them, makes the change more accessible, and maybe even easier. This is how you build your willpower to make a change.
Reward yourself mindfully
Kelly McGonigal calls it “dopaminaising”. Dopamine brings us immediate pleasure. Unfortunately, it only lasts a short time and usually does not help us to build long term positivity. But when we use this knowledge wisely, it can benefit us. Whenever you want to start or stop doing something, try to combine this activity with something that evokes pleasant feelings. Procrastinating on an important project? Imagine what kind of conditions would make this work easier. Maybe working from a nice cafe with a beautiful view? Maybe music, or some chocolate? Remember, the healthier the dopamine source is, the better it is for you.
Be kind to yourself
When you fail with your willpower, practice forgiveness. Feel compassion towards yourself. Everyone fails. But you have gained valuable insight into what negatively impacts your willpower. Remember it and plan how you will avoid this failure again in future. I usually fail when I’m stressed. Exercising used to be the best solution for me a couple of years ago, but now what helps me more is meditating and spending time with loved ones. What helps you?
Maybe there are other ways of nurturing willpower that are better suited to you. McGonigal also suggests making your intentions public or teaming up with others for accountability. For some of us, personal pride or a sense of competition can be good motivation. Observe yourself, listen to your inner voice. You will find your willpower’s best source, I am sure of that.
Good luck with your change!