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Strengthen your Willpower
23September/2015

Strengthen your Willpower

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WORDS Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot Psychologists and Authors
www.pscounselling.com.au

Willpower: it’s what we all want more of. Just imagine what you could achieve if you could exert that self-control. You’d stay at work and finish that project you’ve just given up on to go home and lie on the couch, beer in one hand and remote control in the other. You’d get up an hour earlier every morning to go for a run and hit the gym, instead of hitting the snooze button and rolling over.

You’d swap that second beer for mineral water, you’d drink a herbal infusion instead of your third coffee for the morning, you’d order a salad for lunch instead of a burger, and you’d have an apple instead of a chocolate bar when the 3pm munchies hit. You’d read that book that’s gathering dust on your bedside table instead of channel surfing and watching crap TV at night, or sport reruns.

One of the most common laments we hear from our clients is “I just need more control!” A researcher from Florida State University, Dr Roy Baumeister, has poured a lot of hours into looking at willpower, and finding out not only how it works, but how you can improve on it. And what he found is – willpower is finite. Willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired, and the more fatigued it becomes, the less ability we have to control our impulses.

So that sort of explains how you can start off the day brimming with good intentions, energy and positivity oozing out of every pore, but finish the day on the couch with the remote control, beer and nuts lined up. You’ve given up and left work at 5pm on the dot, driven past the gym on your way home, and dialled a pizza instead of grilling that steak and tossing that salad.
According to Dr Baumeister, there are several hundred published studies that have replicated the depletion of willpower. They’ve put people in rooms in front of chocolate and pastries and told them to resist the temptation to eat them. And then they measured how long the participants would persevere on a frustrating task. The people that resisted the chocolate gave up a lot faster when it came to working on the frustrating task.

The effort of resisting the sweet food – of exerting energy not to eat it – drained their willpower. So when they needed willpower later for another task, they weren’t as strong, or didn’t have as much control, as they did earlier. Now the really rotten thing about this is: we use our willpower all the time to stop ourselves doing things we want to do. We’re constantly depleting that willpower muscle.

Just think about it – how often do you have a desire to do something during the day? When was the last time you felt like checking your email or Facebook, having sex, grabbing a coffee or something to eat, or even going to the toilet? Well, Baumeister and his team can tell you. Their research has found that we have a desire to do something about half the time we are awake.

That’s eight hours a day of experiencing desires. And around 40 per cent of people try to control those desires or urges two out of every five times. It makes sense, really. If you didn’t control the urge to have sex every time you thought about it, no one would get anything done. It also explains why we are more likely to give in to temptation as the day wears on. Our willpower muscle is being secretly depleted all day long!

To make things worse, apparently we can’t tell when our willpower is wearing out. It just happens. And when it’s worn out, that’s when we start to make poor decisions. It certainly sounds like we’re screwed, but don’t be so fast to give up – there’s hope. Just like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened. Baumeister has tested this, too. He found that when people perform self-control exercises over a couple of weeks, they get better at the exercise as well as getting better at self-control on unrelated things.

So, practising self-control on a task like going to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 6am will not only make you more reliable at doing this, it will make your self-control over staying back at work later, stronger too.

But you don’t want to try to improve everything in your life at once. Because (have you being paying attention, people!?) that will deplete your willpower. So if you decide to turn over a new leaf this Monday and completely change your whole life, you’re almost doomed to fail. Think New Year’s Resolutions. We typically get drawn into making a long list of things we want to improve in our lives, start the year with a bang, but by February it’s all over.

Just choose one thing, focus on that, and strengthen that willpower muscle. When you’ve achieved that one thing, then – and only then – add another. And start with the easiest thing first. It’s like doing reps at the gym – you slowly increase weight and add reps, building up your muscles as you go. Sure, you want to challenge yourself, but you don’t want to end up hobbling for the next week. Slow and steady wins the race. Got it?

Now there’s one more component to willpower that we need to discuss: you can feed it! In his research, Baumeister found that willpower was stronger after a good night’s sleep, and a healthy breakfast. It then diminished steadily through the day, except after healthy snacks and meals. An apple and yoghurt for morning tea, and a healthy sandwich for lunch boost flagging willpower levels!

So now that we’re talking food, what about willpower and diet? Come on, admit it, you’ve been waiting for this. What’s the magic secret? Sorry guys, there isn’t one.
Baumeister’s research has found that (surprise, surprise) eating and diet is very complex, and although willpower plays an important role, there are many other factors that contribute to overeating and binge eating. His advice is not to try to stop yourself from eating if you want to lose weight. Instead, fill up with the healthy stuff so your body will have enough energy to fuel your willpower.

So what are you going to do to improve your willpower? You can always put this magazine down, remember a few interesting points to tell people over your next coffee break, and continue doing exactly what you’ve always done. Or you could do something different. Pick something small and realistic, get enough sleep and eat well, and build up that willpower muscle.
If you want to create change in your life, you need to make changes.

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