It seems that the goals we set for ourselves, whether it be losing weight or organizing our home, can be achieved as long as we have the willpower to do it. Trouble is, willpower is not just something that can magically appear — it takes much more than talking yourself into doing something. In the book Willpower Instinct ($17), it's described as a metaphorical muscle that you can train to have more willpower. On the flip side, willpower is not an unlimited resource, and you can overexhaust it to the point where you give up. Here are some of the best strategies author Kelly McGonigal mentions in her book:
Meditate for just five to 10 minutes a day, and you'll see a remarkable change in your willpower. Meditation can also help you better snap out of your cravings and bring you back to reality. And don't worry if you're having trouble meditating and focusing. McGonigal says that being "bad" at meditation is actually good for self-control. You'll be more focused after practicing, because you'll be able to better catch yourself moving away from the goal and recognize your impulses.
Get started by reading these helpful tips on meditation.
Relaxing will help ease stress, which in turns boosts your willpower reserve. You might think that's easy and start kicking back with your favorite TV show or a big meal. However, true relaxation, according to the book, is giving your body and mind a break to trigger the physiological relaxation response. In a relaxed state, your heart rate and breathing slow down, blood pressure drops, muscles release tension, and more.
McGonigal recommends to lie in bed, close your eyes, and take deep breaths. If your body is tense, she suggests flexing the muscle in the affected parts of your body and letting it go. Studies show that people who practice daily relaxation exercises had healthier physiological responses to stressful willpower challenges.
3. Make small deadlines
Researchers found that if participants control one small thing that they aren't used to controlling, it helps to train and strengthen the willpower muscle. You can do this by setting small deadlines and trying to tackle a task piecemeal. For example, if your goal is to eat healthy, you can set a minigoal of just browsing the produce aisle in the supermarket in the first week, then resolve to cook one healthy meal for the second week.
Keep setting these small deadlines for a few months, and without realizing it, you'll accomplish what you set out to do. The consistent act of self-control can increase overall willpower, says McGonigal.
4. Remember the reasoning
Before you give in to your impulse, try to remember why you resolved not to do it in the first place. Think of your long-term goals, and compare them to the short-term satisfaction you get from caving into temptation. You'll then realize that the "treat" is now a threat and an obstacle to your goals.
5. Be supportive of yourself, not critical
There's nothing that drains willpower faster than guilt and shame. So don't try to incentivize yourself by beating yourself up over your failures. Focus on what you can do instead of what you should not do. For example, resolve to eat more healthy meals instead of restricting desserts. McGonigal says if you berate yourself, you could trigger the "what-the-hell" effect, which basically derails you from your goal after a mistake and makes you more susceptible to temptation.
Make it inconvenient to give into your temptation. It won't stop you, but it will make it harder to go against your goals. For example, schedule a session with a personal trainer, or bring a set amount of cash with you when you're on a budget, and leave your credit cards at home.
7. Associate with your future self
We often put off tasks we don't want to do and tell ourselves that we'll get it done later. However, "later" seems to get postponed, to the point where it sometimes doesn't happen. This may be happen because you are disconnected with your future self. "Brain-imaging studies show that we even use different regions of the brain to think about our present selves and our future selves," writes the author. The brain has a habit of treating your future self like a stranger, which can affect your current efforts to reach long-term goals.
Think about it this way: you seem to assume that your future self will get everything done and is a superhuman who can do it all. You may be indulging in treats now, but you're letting your future self suffer the consequences. Don't treat your future self poorly; work to associate your current state to your future self. McGonigal says if you visualize your future, your brain will start to think more rationally about your current choices. Imagine yourself working out if your aim is to get fit. Another strategy that works is to write a letter or an email to your future self. Write about your hopes for the future, what you think you will be like, and what your future self will say about your current choices.
8. Don't fight your thoughts
Do you ever notice that the more you force yourself to stop thinking about something, the more it comes up in your mind? This is called the ironic rebound. To prevent it from happening, don't try to suppress your thought when it comes up. And just because you're thinking it doesn't mean it's true. If a negative thought or craving comes into your mind, think to yourself, "Oh, there it goes again. Thoughts randomly come and go in our minds, and just thinking it doesn't make it true."
Accept the thought instead of trying to fight it. Remind yourself that thoughts and feelings may not be under your control, but you can choose your actions. The author suggests an exercise in which you hold the thought, breathe in deeply, visualize the thought as a cloud passing through your mind, and imagine it dissolve.
These willpower exercises are just the tip of the iceberg, so pick up the Willpower Instinct to learn more. Another great read for developing the ability to accomplish difficult goals is The Power of Habit.