Worried about your willpower as you consider your New Year’s resolutions? You’re not alone. Michael McKee, PhD, a psychologist with Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, says everyone struggles with procrastination and temptation, key aspects of willpower.
“We live in a marketing-driven culture,” says Dr. McKee. “Temptation is everywhere you look. Just think about the checkout displays at the grocery store. Making the right choice is what differentiates people using willpower from those who don’t.”
What is willpower?
Dr. McKee defines willpower as the ability to use the prefrontal cortex to decide what’s good for you and then choosing it.
“Everyone has willpower, but it varies greatly from one person to another,” he says. “Distractibility, stress and sleep deprivation all fuel impulsivity and make it hard to resist temptation. We are delayed by procrastination and sabotaged by impulse.”
Willpower also has a biological component: Bad behaviors can be reinforced by dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Humans can develop a built-in response to temptation and lose the ability to make the right decision.
How to increase your willpower
But we can train ourselves to make hard choices and increase our willpower. “Willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened,” says Dr. McKee. “But like any muscle, it can be overused and worn out. If you keep denying yourself, you may run out of willpower.”
Dr. McKee offers an acrostic as a way to help you remember strategies for strengthening your willpower and achieving your goals:
W – Will, not won’t or want. Make a positive statement instead of a negative one. For example, say that you will go for a walk instead of saying that you won’t lie on the sofa all weekend.
I – Imagery is a powerful way to influence behavior. If weight loss is your goal, imagine yourself using willpower to order coffee instead of dessert after a meal. Picture the situation in your mind before it actually happens, and practice saying the words and behaving the right way. Use imagery to imagine how you’ll be different if you make changes or if you don’t make changes.
L – Look at yourself and be honest. What are your vulnerabilities? What steps do you need to take to overcome your behavior? What factors stimulate the behavior?
L – Learn to laugh, especially at yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re failing; we all fail sometimes. Forgive yourself, laugh and learn from the experience.
P – Plan as you would for anything. A short-term plan would be to wait 10 minutes when a particular behavior or temptation is presented. For example, if your goal is to stop using tobacco, agree with yourself to wait 10 minutes to smoke a cigarette. If you pause, you may be able to resist the urge altogether. Make another plan for what will happen if you succumb to the old behavior and how you’ll restart your efforts.
O – Own your choices and decisions. Take responsibility for changing your behavior, and don’t blame others.
W – Who, what, when, where and why. Write down the behavior you’d like to change, and keep a journal to note the circumstances of when the behavior occurs. This can help you notice patterns of behavior and devise a plan for change. You also may find it helpful to publicly announce a resolution to family and friends so you’re held accountable.
E – Exercise. This helps in every area of life: physical, emotional and behavioral. Unfortunately, a lack of willpower can influence whether we exercise. But exercising can tone your willpower as it tones your muscles. It also helps fight depression.
R – Relax. This is difficult for some, so you may need to schedule time for relaxation. Relaxing will help you focus your thoughts and strengthen your resistance to temptation and impulse. Dr. McKee recommends replacing activities such as watching TV, drinking alcohol, mindless eating or gambling with gardening, meditating and focused breathing, walking or spending time with family or friends to help you relax.
Still feeling that your resolve isn’t strong enough for a permanent lifestyle change? Again, you’re not alone. Dr. McKee estimates that only about 15 percent of people will succeed with their New Year’s resolutions. Arm yourself with these strategies to increase your willpower and you just may be one of them.