I am a fan of Oscar Wilde and I find his approach to temptation is quite forgiving and tempting to adopt. Temptations that distract you away from your goals come in various guises. I am notorious for deadline driven bad eating. I am very good eat eating healthy most times, but come closer to a work related deadline? I tend eat nothing all day and then end up getting very hungry at nights and eating that last slice of frozen pizza which is really, really bad for me. For you, it may be bad weather that breaks your running streak. Or a really good show that you want to catch up on which gets in the way of getting other stuff done. Do you feel bad that you don’t have the willpower to resist the temptation? Most people seem to. But willpower is an exhaustible resource; we all struggle with situations that deplete this limited resource. So what can we do? Here are a few strategies that actually work.
- Pick your battle. Making so many decisions every day is exhausting. Willpower can and will be depleted every time you have to make a decision that requires short term self-control. So focus on stuff that matters. Let the rest go. For example, unless fashion decisions are rejuvenating experience for you everyday, follow a formula for your everyday wear. Same thing with food. Unless you find concocting new menus everyday exciting and fun, follow a weekly plan. Automate your finances. Basically create systems and processes that will not use up your critical but limited resource. And if it is not a priority for you, it does not matter. Let it go.
- Make it easy for yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You don’t have to apologize for your lack of willpower to anyone. Instead support yourself. To help yourself, reduce the number of situations that will test your resolve. For example, if you don’t want to make that choice between eating healthy and junk snacks, get rid of the junk food in your house. If you tend to get sucked into Netflix like me, close the tab and open it only when you have done whatever else you wanted to do. In the past, I have used a combination of fitbit and myfitnesspal to track my calorie intake and movement.
- Frame it right. Depending on what you want to exercise the willpower for, frame it in the context of a desired outcome in the longterm. So if you want to skip the cupcake in the short term, you need to remind yourself of your health outcomes/goals. In fact, research shows that fear is not helpful to change habits even for people with serious health conditions. Instead, positive imagery for the future seems to do the trick. Visual reminders with calendars and planning strategies could really help. At the beginning of every academic year, I map out my work goals/projects on FlipChart sheets and update it at the end of the semester. Further, I break the goals/projects down on a monthly basis. I developed this method using my training in Total Quality methods, especially Hoshin Kanri, i.e. Policy Deployment, a Japanese methodology for strategic planning.
- Practice to make permanent: You can develop willpower through practice. Take up big challenges and break them into little steps. Continue to do the little steps and practice to make your attitude permanent. You cannot make your willpower permanent. It is bound to deplete.
- Positive Reinforcement: Repeated positive outcomes is a great reinforcer for boosting your willpower. So create short term outcomes/process measures to motivate yourself. This is the trickiest challenge. If you are working on a book, completion of the book is far into the future, it is important to set short term outcomes that will give you the energy to continue on the path.
- Exercise self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail. Self-compassion is the best gift you can give yourself for helping you succeed. Instead of being your worst critic, be your own best cheerleader and supporter. Embrace who you are. Depleting willpower is human condition. You are not alone.