“I can resist anything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde
“I really want to get in shape this year – that’s my New Year’s resolution.”
“Isn’t that the same resolution you had last year?”
“Yeah, but this year, I am really going to do it.”
The most popular New Year’s resolutions involve health: losing weight and getting in shape. And most of those resolutions are forgotten within the first month or two of the year. So why bother? Well, because you want to live a more vital, healthier life, right? You want to feel good about yourself and your future. And that requires willpower.
According to researcher Kelly McGonigal*, we have one brain but two minds. We have a mind that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and we have another mind that controls impulses and looks out for our future best interest. How do you capitalize on your forward thinking mind to reach your long-term goals? The research will surprise you…
6 ways to improve your willpower:
- Move. Even 20 minutes of walking 5 times per week will strengthen the part of your brain that controls impulses. With regular exercise, the prefrontal cortex gets bigger and stronger and creates better connections to other parts of the brain. In as little as 2 months, exercise improves willpower.
- Take a nap. A study of people with a significant willpower challenge (drug addiction) had one half the incidence of relapse when they were able to sleep an extra hour per night when compared with those who slept less. Fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night causes sleep deprivation and lowers resolve.
- Go easy on yourself. The harder you are on yourself, the more likely you are to continue to repeat an unwanted behavior. Shame and guilt drive people back to the very comforting behavior that they want to end. If you instead are able to acknowledge that everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes, and that what you are doing is hard, you are more likely to stick to your plan. Belly breathing, meditation, BodyTalk and Tai Chi help decrease anxiety, and thereby increase willpower.
- Be pessimistic. Imagine yourself failing to meet your exercise (or other) goals. Get specific. When are you not going to exercise? What will you say to yourself that allows you not to exercise – “I’m too tired”? or “I forgot my shoes”?In studies, those who became clear about how they would fail, exercised twice as much as those not in the failure awareness group. AND, optimism about future success correlates with poor achievement. “I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow” is a recipe for failure.
- Hold Your Breath. Distress tolerance, or the ability to stay put, to hang in there when things get uncomfortable, is a great predictor of future success with willpower challenges. So hold your breath: you might start with 15 to 60 seconds- whatever time feels challenging. The practice, which has nothing to do with your particular willpower challenge, will prepare your body physiologically to stay true to your long-term goals.
- Make a small change. Something as simple as promising yourself to use the word “yes” instead of “yeah” for two weeks trains your brain to be disciplined. Discipline practices – those that are relatively easy and not tied to your willpower challenge – carry over to making more meaningful changes in all aspects of your life. Trying to change your world in one day can mean defeat. “Go big or go home” is the wrong way to think about willpower.
So start small – do one of your PT exercises every day for a week. Increase movement by taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Breathe deeply. If you get stuck, BodyTalk or T’ai Chi can decrease stress – and before you know it, you’re off to a great start.
* Kelly McGonigal, PhD, Stanford Researcher and author of the book The Willpower Instinct.