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5 Ways To Develop Willpower

Brain Training

Ok, so as you may or may not have noticed, our approach to everything we do follows the same general curve of thought. Look at the prevailing trend, see if there’s any substance to back it up, act accordingly. When it comes to SEO… well, nothing spells success quite like a “5 ways to blah blah blah” article with added pictures to make sure we don’t drift off while reading challenging, technical information like “stay away from processed foods” or “grains can cause alien abductions” (as in aliens being abducted, not the other way around… you don’t have to worry). Seriously, 40 word posts are apparently all that can survive on Facebook now (40!?!? You couldn’t write the ingredients on a pack of bread!)

It genuinely seems like room for the informative or thought provoking is disappearing fast (don’t worry, today’s article will be neither!). So, we laid down the gauntlet for ourselves: to have the most concise, informative, entertaining articles IN JUST 5 POINTS (2,000 words or less). Never ones to be outdone by monkeys with typewriters, this is day one of our Learn in 5 series!

Willpower goes by many names (perseverance, stubbornness, follow through, though for most psychologists it’s known as ego-depletion), and is generally the difference between making magic things happen and seeing mediocre results. It is the ability to make the difficult decisions, even when there’s an easy way out in front of you. But, just like everything else, it’s not inexhaustible and needs to be trained, and if you take on too much at once, you can find yourself relapsing into bad habits or into self-comforting behaviour patterns.

Your will power can be worn down by stress, trying to do 100 new things at once, or sometimes it’s as simple as unintentionally setting yourself up for failure. Developing willpower is an incredibly worthwhile endeavour and pay dividends in the long run. And though a brilliant economist once said something to the effect of “in the long run… we’re all dead”, we at 521 are still all about making lasting changes (that was Maynard-Keynes by the way).

As you may have already guessed, there are really only 3 options here.

  • Increase your capacity for will power

  • Increase your ability to deal with stressors

  • Reduce the amount of will power it takes to make the right choices

The first option, increasing your will power, is very doable, but just like training a muscle it takes time.

1) When developing a muscle, a sure-fire road to disaster is trying to do too much at once. If you want a better squat, you don’t pick 20 exercises to develop it. The same is true for willpower. If you want to develop this muscle, pick 1 challenge (only 1) and master it. Then, apply what you have learned to your next challenge. So, if for example, you want to learn a new language, pick one goal (i.e. 10 simple phrases) and set a time to practice them. Put your effort into ensuring you’re sitting down at the same time every night and you’re ready to continue practicing. Don’t divide the language into 4 parts, and then each of those into 4 goals, and then try to rotate these 16 goals or fit them into every spare minute you have as this almost always results on nothing getting done.
Pick one goal, set a simple schedule, own it! Exercise, 15 minutes before dinner every night, bag’s packed – towel’s ready – playlist made – exercise WILL BE DONE! When you’re doing exercise every night, and it no longer feels like something you have to push yourself to do, now add in your next goal!

2) When you train a muscle, you’re looking to put demands on it and cause it to rewire and upgrade (the SAID principle). But, the real trick to this is knowing when to hold back and give yourself a break. Forcing yourself to breaking point is a recipe for disaster and a relapse into old bad habits. When you feel good, push yourself a little harder, and when you’re feeling a little rough, DON’T BE TOO HARD ON YOURSELF.

The second option, increasing your ability to deal with stress, is again both very doable and not an overnight habit you can develop. This is one of the most beneficial skills you will ever learn though. We will discuss this in more detail in subsequent articles, but for now:

3) Questioning your mood is the first step in understanding your thought process. It is the what’s bothering that you need to become acquainted with before you look at the why it’s bothering you. If a colleague criticizes your work, are you upset because you worked very hard on this and wanted recognition, or because you feel that they aren’t in a position to criticize your work, OR maybe it’s because you were helping someone else out and this wasn’t your responsibility in the first place (these may seem like the “why’s”, but they’re not. That will come later). Regardless, seeing this for what it is can be revolutionary in freeing you from negative thoughts. When you know what’s bothering you (e.g. you’ve worked very hard on this project) then you can look at why. This will take a lot of being honest with yourself and is only the first step in fixing the problem, as negative emotions will generally stem from underlying confidence issues that you will need to work on.

*Here’s an interesting experiment if the above seems like a lot to take in at once!

4) Taking responsibility for any oversight or problem that arises is one of the most liberating things you can ever do. If you say “I’m in this circumstance because of that – external factor”, you’re effectively saying I have no control over what’s happening. This is not an attitude conducive to productive habits and positive changes. But THE REAL challenge here is learning how to disconnect our ego from the mistake (try thinking that someone who looks JUST like you made the mistake and ask yourself if they really meant to do it and if it’s really that big a problem. Then go from there!). We seem to be under the impression that making a mistake means we are in some way flawed, when in fact the* exact opposite is true. The only real way to improve at anything is learning from our mistakes, and when we realize this, it becomes far easier to let go of the worry associated with mistakes, the burden of responsibility that we feel about taking charge of our own mindset and emotional habits. When you can see that ALL decisions are in fact varying degrees of “rightness” and “wrongness”, you’ll see that there is no “categorically” RIGHT answer, just better decisions made from accumulated learning (… from mistakes)

This is effectively a long winded way of saying when you accept that you aren’t your mistakes and that mistakes are necessary, you’ll have a lot more headspace left for doing the things that seem difficult.

The third option, reducing the amount of will power it takes to make the desired choices, is where we can EXCEL straight off the bat! This is where creating the right environment will prove essential!

5) Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat because it’s two points rolled into one. Creating the right environment is all about making the right choices the easy choices. If you have a bar of chocolate in the fridge, you’re probably not going to eat the banana on the table. WHEREAS, if you had to walk all the way down to the shops to buy the bar of chocolate, you’d make do with the banana. The “make do” here is where you come in. Making do is a nice way of saying something that will ware me down over time and will be abandoned, which isn’t what you want. Yes, having the banana was good, but having delicious almond and coconut flour bread with sliced banana on top will be better than the junk food it replaced. Creating the right environment is about planning, and finding the sweet spot between the gourmet health food cuisine and going crazy every night 2 hours before bed because that last bananas gone bad. Goals should be challenging, but they should also be enjoyable, i.e. being skinny, unhealthy, and miserable is a ridiculous end to any diet.

The second part of this lies in motivation, both in terms of short term rewards and environmental factors. First we need to understand how habits are formed. Habits are formed as part of routines, as in there are effectively 3 stages to any habit: the set-up, the habit itself, and the reward. The set up is facilitated by your environment, meaning that if you have packed your gym bag, it’ll be easier to get into your gym clothes (the set up) and feel ready to work out. This leads you into the habit (the exercise) and will usually be followed by a reward. This reward doesn’t have to be tangible, and once you have developed a habit, you’re body will generally provide you with the reward (in the form of dopamine). Before this routine has become set, it may be useful (just for the first week or 2) to include a reward for forming your new habit. It can be something simple like a small dessert after dinner, or even just giving yourself 10 minutes to relax without feeling guilty that you’re not putting on the dishwasher etc.

When looking at environmental motivation factors, this comes down to reminding yourself why you are trying to make this new habit (or break this old one). This means using an emotional trigger of some form. Usually this is done with pictures (either of people who inspire you or of loved ones that keep you driven to better yourself), and it can be very effective. Just remember the saying “out of sight, out of mind”… make sure you keep the photos somewhere you will see them!

It’s also worth noting, it was believed that glucose (sugar) played a part in ego depletion, meaning that some psychologists thought that exercising willpower (i.e. self-restraint) used up glucose stores. Therefore, it followed logically that replenishing glucose stores will increase willpower! What was later recognized was that self-restraint did not actually use glucose AND that you could increase willpower by just rinsing your mouth out with a sugary solution. It seems far more likely that the taste (or expectation) of sugar caused a release of dopamine and/or other hormones that help you to feel good, and THAT caused the increase in willpower.

So there you have it! 5 ways to increase your willpower and your ability to be productive in spite of whatever your day throws at you!


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