A guide to treating willpower like a muscle; how to strengthen yours to be able to overcome anything
We all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s part of what makes us human and we’re not at fault for being so. However, there are often times when we slip back into bad habits or can’t quite find the motivation to achieve something that we really want. There is always that question of whether we actually really want it if we can’t get there. To promote the idea of self-control and pushing ourselves to find the necessary energy and strength to go through with something we need to exercise our willpower. The power of the will is, after all, something which we can control.
Interesting studies have been carried out which indicate that a strong willpower can set you up for a successful and happy life. The ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ focussed on young children and their ability to be patient or whether temptation overtook their self-control. Four year old children were given the choice of either accepting one marshmallow immediately or, alternatively, wait for fifteen minutes when they would then be rewarded with two. As adults the children who had resisted and opted for the two marshmallows after quarter of an hour were academically more successful, healthier, and maintained better relationships compared to those who had taken the instant gratification. The study concluded that the will to delay personal gratification proved to be a protection against vulnerability, bad decision making, and temptation in later life. Another study followed the lives of a thousand children from birth up until the age of 32. The test factored in siblings, background, social class, and intelligence and found that, as adults, the children who lacked self-discipline and control at a young age went on to have poorer health, were more likely to be substance dependant, suffered worse financial situations and had higher rates of criminal offences. Within families, despite having grown up together in the same environment, the siblings which displayed poorer self-discipline had worse life outcomes than their brothers or sisters.
This shows that a strong willpower is not only good for our level of success but also your health.
If you’re trying to kick a habit, make a big change in your life, or simply trying to set a new goal you need to look for ways to practice self-control that will strengthen your ability to head in the right direction. Experts suggest that the best way to do this is with gradual effort so as not to overwhelm ourselves, which can result in the opposite outcome to what we desired.
The more of it we have the better, and the more freely we live out our hopes and dreams – so how do we develop a stronger willpower? Researchers and therapists both concur that the willpower we all have within us can be exercised just like a muscle. If we treat it as such, we can guide it and enhance it, grow it, if you like. Once we strengthen the power of our will we can empower ourselves and grow more confident in our abilities. The only way to strengthen it however is to use it! It won’t just develop by itself, so we need to do some exercises in self-discipline to really make it work and get us to the “I’ve got this” stage of resilience.
Ways to exercise self-discipline
It isn’t the easiest road to go down but it is the way we need to go to be able to teach ourselves how to be productive and how to achieve. Finding those little things that seem really difficult and working through them is key. For example, not skipping an exercise session because you’re a bit tired or can’t find the energy, snacking on something you really know you shouldn’t just because you can’t help it, pressing snooze on the alarm instead of getting up at the first bell, and definitely not passing the buck on who’s at fault! It’s a good case of not putting off until tomorrow what can be done today. We’ve simply got to get on with it! Decide what you’re going to do, commit to it and go through with it. The more practice we get at the little things, the stronger our resilience and willpower grows.
As well as the self-discipline factor, we need to develop a sense of ownership for our own weaknesses. It can’t be blamed on other people or circumstances, we need to own it. Complaining and blaming, which actually can be classed as a habit in itself, will only extend our inability to self-motivate and prevent us from moving in the right direction.
To start yourself off on a self-disciplinary tack, try to change one small thing in your life that you want to alter long term – something along the lines of the things listed above. It could be something as simple as taking better care of a plant. Whatever it is you must commit to it and follow through. One small change at a time can really help us to work that willpower in our favour. And there are rewards. Over time you will feel a sense of empowerment, confidence and achievement in your accomplishments.
Practicing self-control on a daily basis is essential, once you have managed to overcome one small battle, it is time to add more and following that we can approach more challenging ones. We mustn’t overwork our discipline however, as this can prove detrimental, we need to give ourselves a break and some recovery time, as you would with any muscle you’re working.
Practicing the art of distraction, or using one’s imagination can prove to be useful tools in self-management. If we are trying to avoid doing something, like snacking for example, we need to find ways to keep the mind occupied on something other than food until it is time to eat. We need to build up good habits and ways to deal with stressful situations, breathing exercises and meditations are an amazing tool for this, and we can do them anywhere. Indulging in something that is not good for us in such situations encourages bad habits. When under duress we need to find positive ways of managing ourselves instead of reaching for the ice cream, the bottle, or worse. Instead, we need to construct a better, healthier alternative such as exercise, stretching, breathing and meditation (as mentioned above), listening to relaxing music, talking to a friend, soaking in a hot bath, watching something funny, whatever works for you.
Remember that you never have to sacrifice your personality, beliefs or ways to develop self-control, these are the things you are reaching for, your own goals, and require you to be yourself in order to achieve them. We just need to find ways to adapt to our new requirements! Also don’t overdo it and set yourself crazy goals that you may never realistically reach. We don’t want to set ourselves up for disappointment and failing can be a huge set back for future self-discipline. One of the best ways to get to where you want to go is to set yourself a reward system. Break up your goal into sections, once you reach certain points, or achieve a segment of your target give yourself a reward. This helps us to feel a systematic sense of achievement whilst keeping us on track for the end result.
So let’s get stretching and working that willpower muscle and start realising the dreams we were too afraid to set for ourselves…we’ve got this!
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