Monday 22 January 2018

10 ways to build willpower

In the past, researchers described willpower as a muscle which could be strengthened but also depleted with overuse. Clinical psychologist Ros Taylor takes the view that willpower is a mindset which, once mastered, can be almost limitless

1 Get a willpower mindset

For years there was the received wisdom that willpower was like a muscle which became exhausted with overuse. If you squandered your willpower on, for example, controlling yourself at a meeting when you really wanted to shout at your colleagues, then you would have no willpower left in the evening to diet, exercise etc. This has now been challenged by the University of Miami and others showing quite the reverse. The more you succeed in overcoming bad habits (even small ones) or achieving challenging goals, the more you know you can overcome most adversities with willpower.

Paralympians, like cyclist Neil Fachie who is partially sighted, compete against all the odds; quadruple amputee Jamie Andrew learnt to run in marathons again and climb mountains. They had used willpower in the past as athletes, so they knew how to exert it again and they talk about willpower as a mindset.

2 Win the war of two brains

Your rational upper brain is often in conflict with the pleasure-seeking lower brain and the pleasure brain often wins. We reach for that chocolate cake, that extra helping of chips, despite being on a diet. This is your lower brain winning with its emotional knee-jerk 'hot' response, which undermines willpower. What you really need is a cool upper brain response to intervene and win the day.

The cool system is cognitive and rational. It's a thinking system with knowledge about the impact of your choice, with thoughts, feelings and actions all designed to remind you why you should leave temptation where it belongs.

While the cool system is relaxed, the hot system is impulsive and emotional. It is responsible for quick, knee-jerk responses to certain triggers, such as eating the piece of chocolate cake (if not the whole cake) immediately, without thinking of the long-term implications. Willpower is the override switch of the upper brain over the lower.

3 Pause and plan

Imagine, for a moment, you are in a bar with friends who have ordered a bottle of wine and poured a glass for you. You reach out a hand to pick up the glass. But wait a minute, you're not supposed to be drinking alcohol this week as you want to control your input and be kind to your liver. Now you are anticipating that sip, and everyone is having a great time. What do you do?

If you reach for the glass as if controlled by alien force, then this is the emotional 'hot' response of your lower brain. To access the upper brain's rational 'cool' response, you need to pause and plan. Pausing stops the instant response of grabbing and gulping. Planning ensures that you are not caught unawares by temptation.

Pause by relaxing: take a deep breath, turn away a little from the bar. Remember why you are not drinking.

Plan with a strategy: a friend of mine puts her soft drink in a wine glass so that it looks like wine. Ask your friends to support you in your alcohol-free week and some may even join in your quest.

4 Distraction works

We have cravings for five to 10 minutes on average, so distract yourself and before you know it, you will have forgotten your craving. Phone a friend, go out for a walk, read a book, watch a TV programme.

5 Visualise goals

In the way that sunlight can't burn through anything without a magnifying glass, you can't achieve unless a goal is focusing your effort. If you want to lose three stone, learn a language or a sport - this isn't going to happen overnight, so by setting goals, you provide a reminder, a sense of direction, a road map to your destination with accountability to get there.

Recent research shows that just visualising a positive outcome is so powerful that you feel you have achieved your goal already. Not so good when you haven't. Bring your goals to life by imagining each step to the outcome.

6 Get the willpower habit

Habits make up 50pc of our lives as they save time and effort, leaving room for the big decisions we all have to make. These habits are formed early in our lives and reside in our lower brains, so speaking sternly to yourself just doesn't work. You need to attack habits in a different way.

Try the '3 + 9 week willpower rule'. Research shows that it takes three weeks to establish a new behaviour, and a further nine weeks of repetition to turn that new behaviour into a habit.

If you want to run a mile every morning, then that pattern must be established. During weeks 1 to 3, alarms may have to be set earlier, snooze button disabled, the weather ignored, kit washed and ready for wearing.

In weeks 4 to 6: beware of 'extinction bursts'. when the brain is looking for ways to reinstate your old habits. In a weak moment, you might decide to stay in bed luxuriating in the warmth of your duvet but if this happens, get back on track the next day.

By weeks 6 to 12, repetition is turning your running into an automatic habit with the intrinsic rewards of feeling fitter, healthier, more alert at work with better decision making, and sleeping more soundly. Twelve weeks isn't so long if you have been a couch potato all your life.

7 Start small

Mini habits take very little willpower to do each day, to the point that you can do them even when you don't feel like it. And because they're so small, you can easily develop more than one at a time. I had decided that I wanted to read before sleeping and go to bed earlier. Just one chapter a night was the mini habit I wanted to acquire.

Four or five small habits can be targeted at the same time, but of course, each person will be different, so trial and error is useful.

The joy of this approach is that you can see it as being in training for the big event of a major willpower challenge, like running in a marathon or completing a degree course.

8 Become a realistic optimist

Martin Seligman has followed optimists and pessimists for over 40 years to chart outcomes. Optimists experienced less nasty life events, are less likely to become depressed, were more successful in everything they undertook and lived longer. Using core strengths, not the coveted abilities of others, as well as believing that you are the initiator of your success engenders optimism.

Pessimistic thinking, too, can be changed, as acquiring the optimist habit is the same as any other.

9 Relax

Neuroscientists and psychologists have shown that stress produces cortisol, which has a scouring effect on the brain, robbing you of a measured cool response to willpower.

Sleep deprivation (even just getting less than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. The prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit as it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings.

Relaxation is, therefore, crucial for willpower and is a skill separate from exercise.

In addition, according to the latest research, using simple relaxation techniques on a daily basis can add between seven and 10 years to your life, so it's really worth pursuing.

10 Practice the power minute

In this pressured world, our breathing becomes too shallow as we rush, limiting our oxygen intake and not getting rid of enough carbon dioxide when exhaling.

Count your breaths for a minute. Ten to 12 per minute is an average breathing rate. More than that and you are breathing too rapidly to be relaxed.

Repeat the Power Minute, breathing in more slowly, breathing out more slowly, taking fewer breaths. Use every day to notice a reduction in your stress. For more exercises, receive a free download at

** Ros Taylor's book Willpower: Discover It, Use It and Get What You Want is published by Capstone and available now, priced €15.39

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