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Remember those moments when you just don’t feel like doing a task, but you know you have to? You struggle to decide, especially after a tough day at work, until you end up slouching, eating leftover pizza and bingeing on a new Netflix series. Then the next day comes and you start feeling guilty, thinking that you could have already started working on your long overdue project.
One big misconception about willpower is that it is limitless. Contrary to many Vince Lombardi-type motivations, willpower is more like an energy that can be depleted. Willpower is a finite resource. It works in cycles; it is something that you build on and know when to maximize.
As psychologist Roy Baumeister and science writer John Tierney pointed out in their Willpower book, it works a lot like a muscle. Like a muscle, it can get tired and need recovery. It also needs to be nourished. It is affected by a lot of factors such as stress, physical health, and nutrition. In other words, your “spirit can be willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.”
Willpower is something you develop by working on many different fronts. For instance, the issue of whether it’s just all in the “mind” is not necessarily true. Willpower involves not just a strong mind but also a responsive body. If you haven’t eaten breakfast and you see free donuts from the office kitchen table, your chances of ruining your sugar free diet will be higher. The need for food is stronger, thus you’re more likely to give in to temptation. No matter how powerfully you tell yourself not to eat the donut, your hunger will work against you. Through your conscious mind you say no, but your subconscious mind has already made the decision.
Willpower is more than just the issue of discipline or self-control. While pain and hard work are definitely parts of it, building willpower doesn’t have to be necessarily boring or discouraging. Or feel like you’re back in a super strict Catholic school. Here are 7 often overlooked but effective methods that can help you look at willpower in a different way.
1.) DEFINING WHAT MOTIVATES YOU
Self-control and discipline are often other names for willpower. But when you hear those words, they can repel you and make it difficult for you to attain discipline. It still takes effort to say ‘no’ to a temptation or some quick gratification; it still requires energy to say no. If the underlying motivation is not strong enough, then temptations will still power their way against you. Like that donut, calling you softly nearby while your head is starting to ache because you haven’t eaten anything.
To begin with, you can’t resist something you’re already weak against.
The bigger question is what do you need the willpower for? And in all seriousness, why are you going to do what you want to do in the first place? Discipline is more like a side effect. If there is no underlying passion and serious motivation behind a goal, temptations can easily power their way against you. You’re weakly “wired” against what you’re trying to avoid. What you need is more energy on the side of what you’re trying to accomplish rather than just the energy to delay gratification and say no to temptations.
For example, if you want to take an active role in politics, you have to ask yourself what you are really fighting for. Are you fighting to just be right? Or are you fighting because you care about the rising levels of income inequality, social injustices, the lowering of public morality, and more importantly, because it affects you?
You need to affirm the many underlying reasons for what you want to do. Address your core values. Research shows that this is effective in counteracting mental energy drain, or sometimes referred to as ego depletion.
2.) DIVIDING YOUR GOALS INTO SMALLER PIECES
If you want to lose weight, you have to be specific on how much weight you want to lose. If you want to lose 30 pounds in 3 months, it means you have to lose 10 pounds per month. If you have to lose 10 pounds per month, you’ll have to work out a certain amount per week. What would your diet be? And so on.
If you want to make a million dollars in 2 years, you’ll have to divide one million by 24 months. That would equal around $41,000 per month. If the profit margin per product is $50, $41,000 per month is equivalent to 820 units. So now how do you sell 820 units per month? Some marketers would say that, under the usual averages, you would want to market to 8,200 people or more per month, as you may get 8-10% to respond to the product. If you want to be more conservative, you can double the number of people you have to reach.
By cutting your goal into smaller pieces, it gives you several tasks to start and work with. At the same time, it lessens the chances of failure, because you have a clearer view on how to get to your big goal.
Starting is actually the secret to accomplishing a lot of things. Just by starting, somehow you are compelled to continue on. Breaking a big goal into smaller pieces makes it more possible for you to at least begin. And the little pieces eventually build up, giving you momentum toward fulfilling your goal.
3.) GRADUAL PROGRESSION & ACCUMULATING POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
In connection to #2, doing things little by little and building on them works because shocking yourself too soon demoralizes you easily. If you have a goal to join the circus playing with spiders and you’re scared of spiders, you can’t just will yourself to shake hands with a tarantula. You’ll have to expose yourself little by little with whatever it is that seems too difficult to attain. It’s a lot like working out. You have to start small and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts.
This idea is a lot like what psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe developed and called Systematic Desensitization. This behavioral therapy shows that you’re more likely to do something when there is enough genuine positive reference (or perceived positive outcome). A negative reference or outcome would be discouraging for your mind. For instance, if you’re scared of a spider, you can’t just directly expose yourself to the spider. You’ll have to do it in increments. Those increments would give you enough positive references to no longer be afraid of playing with a spider. While this behavioral therapy is born out of treating fears, the concept is applicable to willpower because it can be crushed at the onset of a big setback or negativity.
4.) YOUR HEALTH MATTERS
Exercise. Find a diet that works for you. Surround yourself with happy and positive people. If you can’t do heavy work outs, start by consistently taking brisk walks in the morning. Eat slow-cooked meals; not only are they easy to chew, but they are also easily digestible as well as good for your metabolism and hormones. Be with friends who make you laugh. When I say laugh, I don’t just mean a simple laugh, but a serious laugh that makes your stomach hurt. Your emotional and mental health matters just as much as your physical health. When you have your overall health in check, you’ll have a good amount of energy on your side to work with your motivations.
5.) WORK ON YOUR EMOTIONAL BLOCKAGES
Often, people grow up with a lot of untapped emotions and can be oblivious to them. Whatever emotional blockages you may have, they play a big role in your decisions and your motivations. For instance, fear of losing something can prevent you from expressing something. At the end of the day, you’ll have to learn to express, process, and manage all of those untapped emotions. Working on a goal involves a great deal of emotional processing. It is incredibly difficult to accomplish what you want if a part of you is suppressed. You can’t simply force things, and if you do, be ready to be called a dictator.
Having good, trusted friends who listen can make a big difference. But aside from having friends, a professional can also help. Acknowledge the chip on your shoulder. Find that breakthrough and learn why, at times, you may feel like it doesn’t matter. Question what you feel. Work with what your subconscious may be telling you. Ask yourself what (or who) is suppressing you in expressing your truth.
6.) ACKNOWLEDGING YOUR LIMITATIONS
Whoever gave the idea that you’re limitless forgot that you need to sleep, eat, sleep more, work out, and save some time for leisure—or, basically, forgot that you’re human. We live in a society that seems to glorify not just being heroes, but superheroes. If you think about it, superheroes need breaks too. You can tell yourself you need to work hard, do this and that, be “winning” always, and do the “boom, boom, boom,” but you can’t always do it all the time.
Be careful as well of not falling into the trap of constantly working and doing many things. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive and building willpower. Being overly busy can be a sign of denial about what’s really going on in your life.
You can break through walls like Pink Floyd, but acknowledge that you are human and have limitations. By acknowledging your limitations, you’ll find ways to work around those limitations, and you’ll be able to build more willpower with a more feasible outlook.
Ask yourself if your mind is working for you or just working you. If you are thinking too much, feel uneasy, want to do this, do that, and get enormously tired at the end of the day, chances are your mind is working you. You are no longer in control of your mind (or even your circumstances). This is where the power of meditation comes in. Meditation more than just calms your mind; it also helps in clearing many “noises” in your head. More importantly, it allows you to take charge of your mind rather than the other way around. Those “noises” can drain you of energy. Willpower is a resource that needs to be managed. Any energy you can conserve matters.
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