Willpower is often the resource we lack or wish for the most to maintain a balanced life.
It’s responsible for making healthy food choices, sticking to a productive work schedule and limiting destructive Facebook time. While steps necessary to stick to these goals are often obvious and well-known, willpower is the resource that makes passing up a slice of cake or shutting the browser window down possible in times of temptation.
Many people believe that willpower is a genetic trait that you either have or don’t have. There is some merit to this belief, however modern research proves that willpower can be strengthened and greatly improved.
Did you know that you are more likely to give in to temptation (anything from online gambling to yelling at your family member) when you are hungry?
Willpower is a muscle (granted, a complicated one) that needs fuel and it weakens tremendously when blood sugar levels drop. Eating a healthy snack every 2-3 hours like a handful nuts or a slice of fruit with peanut butter can help you stick to your workout schedule, avoid a social media trap at work or have enough self control to say “no” to another time-cluttering request.
Everything in our life is connected and choices that we make in one area of life affect all others. We are more likely to make self-controlled and logical decisions in neat environments (yep, that’s why decluttering your closet will help you make a healthier choice in the grocery store and having a well-organized desktop will keep you from wasting time on the Internet) according to recent research published in the book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.
Today I would like to share with you 3 practical strategies that will help you exercise your willpower muscle and ultimately live a more balanced life.
Strategy #1. Precommitment
Imagine that you tell all your friends (and enemies) that you are determined to lose 20 pounds if it’s the last thing that you are going to do in life. You keep going on and on about it for several months to the point where some people are already sick of talking about weight loss with you.
Most everyone you know starts supporting you and asking about your progress. There are a few people who really want you to fail and are just waiting for you to stumble and fall on your face while gaining 20 more pounds in the process.
The last thing that you would want is to fail. You would feel miserable, ashamed and plain defeated.
The strategy described above is called “precommitment.” It’s a powerful way to make yourself stick to a certain goal by making it impossible or extremely uncomfortable to fail.
There are two ways to make this strategy work for you:
Plan A. Avoid any temptations. If you know that you can spend hours surfing the web instead of finishing up a project then use software (I’ll explain later) that blocks any time-wasting websites (facebook, twitter, email etc.)
Instead of going into Krispy Kreme and whispering to yourself “I won’t eat that doughnut, I WON’T eat that doughnut!” simply don’t go in there.
This strategy works the best by taking the temptation out of your sight and out of your mind. Brilliant, but not always possible.
(BTW, here are a couple more easy ways to resist temptations in life)
Plan B. Create a perfect persona. For the last 10 years I have been passionate about health, preaching the virtues of healthy lifestyle and regular exercise to everyone I knew. However, as a teenager I was a completely different person.
One time I managed to eat about 2 pounds of chocolates in one day (oh, I felt so bad after that!!!)
Another time I was suffering through a big teenage drama (“The world is over because everything didn’t turn out the way I planned it” -type thing.) I ordered (and finished!) 1 large pizza, drank 1 liter Coke and finished my miserable day with a pint of ice-cream, while watching movies and vegging out on a couch all day. I felt ashamed, miserable and defeated by my own lack of willpower.
That was one of the turning points in my life. After that event I made a commitment to become a health-conscious person. I started telling everyone about my plans to lose weight and exercise regularly, I started teaching a fitness class, and eliminating unhealthy foods from my diet.
Soon everyone I knew was aware of my big health-craze and I had no choice but to support this image. Granted, it took time but today I appreciate the benefits of maintaining a healthy weight, a habit of regular exercise and physical intolerance of unhealthy foods.
Another great thing about the strategy of creating an ideal image of yourself is that you can influence other people in a positive way. When we go out together, my friends ask me what they should order in restaurants to make a better choice.
My biggest “victory” though is turning my husband towards healthy eating (a man who couldn’t imagine his house without a box of cookies and his meals without sweet iced tea – neither one of these items are present in our household any more except on special occasions.)
Think of a change that you would like to see in yourself and start announcing it to people around you. A few online tools can be helpful for this reason:
- StickK.com – helps you set and stick to goals by creating “commitment contracts.” You can set a referee who will track your progress or you can report your results personally. As a penalty for not sticking to your goal a sum can be drafted from your bank account and transferred to a charity or a cause that you would absolutely hate to support. An email can also be sent out to a list of your friends and/or enemies with a detailed description of your failure.
- Covenant Eyes – this software tracks websites that you visit and sends a weekly report to your “accountability partner.” The accountability partner will start an honest conversation with you about your Internet history. This software is particularly useful for those trying to fight online gambling or pornography addiction as well as for families who want to be aware of what their kids are doing on the Internet.
- Website blocking software – like Focal Filter and Cold Turkey lets you block distracting websites for certain periods of time. Extremely useful if you are trying to cut back on your social media time.
- Public Humiliation Diet – not a website, but rather an example of how one person, Drew Magary, lost 60 pounds without doing anything special. The original article has some censored language but the Simple Dollar review will give you a few useful tips without the bad language.
Strategy #2. Habits
Self-control (or willpower) is often praised the most as a single event: fasting for 10 days, making a sprint at the end of a marathon, writing a book in record time, etc. However, true self-control is possible only through simple habits.
A heroic African explorer Henry Morton Stanley started every day by shaving regardless of whether he was at home or in the middle of dark and ominous Ituri Forest, suffering from malaria, starving and not knowing whether he and his companions would make it until tomorrow (and most of his companions never did.)
A simple habit of shaving as well as looking as neat as possible helped him conserve his willpower and keep his “human” and “humane” face in spite of the trying circumstances. It was his line of defense against the trials of the unfriendly environment.
A study conducted by Bob Boice followed a group of young professors who set out to publish a high-quality, original work in order to earn tenure at the university. Most of the ones who committed to writing 1 page a day succeeded while the ones who practiced “binge-writing” never finished their work.
Good habits work like an autopilot that help us cruise through daily trials with balance and ease while conserving willpower for the times that we really need it.
Strategy #3. Stop being selfish
You might have heard about the notorious Hell Week test that Navy SEALs must endure to complete their training. The strongest and fittest men of the nation must endure a week of continuous running, crawling, swimming and shivering on just 4 hours of sleep.Only one quarter of the men in each SEAL group typically completes the test. According to Eric Greiten, a SEAL officer, the survivors aren’t always the most muscular ones but the ones who put aside their own fear and ask “How can I help the guy next to me?”
Selfish behavior always leads to low willpower and lack of self-control. Just take a look at people around you or read the latest Hollywood buzz. But thinking about others and focusing on broad, long-term goals nurtures self-control.
Spirituality, being an essential part of life balance, is a natural road towards stronger willpower. When you stop thinking “How can I benefit from this situation?” and turn your focus towards “What is my true purpose in life?”, “What am I going to leave behind?”, and “What are real life treasures for me?” you open your heart and your mind to a new life of contentment, sense and harmony. Temptations don’t have a strong grip on you any more because you are able to see their transience and keep your focus on the true meaning of life.
What areas of life require the most willpower from you? Are you ready to give these strategies a try to improve your willpower and ultimately your life balance?
Let me know about your questions and thoughts in the comments below.
One more thing, keep a lookout for a special article that is coming really soon. It will be the climax of the year on BalanceInMe, you wouldn’t want to miss it. In the meantime,
Keep it balanced!
P.S. Parts of these article as well as the strategies described above were inspired by a great book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney. If you want to know more about how to strengthen and use willpower to your benefit then you should definitely consider buying this book. It’s an easy yet captivating read.