Willpower is like a dirty word to some people.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, lose weight, or stick to a new exercise routine, you may cringe when you hear it mentioned.
But what willpower actually is and how to practice it is often misunderstood.
“There are a lot of misconceptions or misnomers about willpower.
Even the name willpower people think they have it or don’t,” says Scott Bea, PsyD, assistant professor of medicine in the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
”Willpower depends on the person’s capacity to override an uncomfortable thought, action, or impulse to occur without taking action toward it.”
People with great willpower have some qualities or characteristics in common including a willingness to be uncomfortable, the ability to delay gratification, and determination.
Even if you don’t possess all these qualities, there’s still hope.
We asked the experts to share some secrets of willpower with us, just in time for the New Year:
Willpower is both learned and natural.
It’s just like any other muscle, says psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, who has a private practice in New York City.
“You’re born with a certain amount of natural ability, and then you can develop it,” she explains.
“There are probably some folks by their DNA that can tolerate discomforts much better than other organisms, but I think that it’s something that can be learned and cultivated also,” says Dr. Bea.
“It may be a trait or characteristic that can be developed if people don’t have it straightaway.”
Discomfort plays a big role.
Willpower has to do with the allowance of discomfort, Bea says.
“So much of willpower involves delay of gratification, tolerating a short-term discomfort in order to achieve a goal that’s deemed worthwhile, and I think that’s the biggest part of it.”
The more willing you are to be uncomfortable, the more you can develop that characteristic, he says.
You’re probably practicing great willpower right now.
People don’t recognize that things like going to school, sitting in traffic, or waiting for your next paycheck are acts of willpower, says Bea.
“Imagine any time you’re uncomfortable.
How about the sacrifices you make for your child or your partner in life?
People don’t often think about those as displays of willpower or willingness, willingness to be uncomfortable, but people do it all the time,” he says.
Focus your attention.
Willpower grows stronger when we pay attention to it, says Carmichael.
You can increase your attention to willpower by offering yourself positive reinforcements for sticking with goals, she says.
“Another way to increase attention to willpower is to share your goals with friends and family.
Invite them to check in with you about your goal.
When they do this, it refocuses your attention to your goal and the willpower you need to achieve it.”
Expert Tips to Cultivate Willpower
Are you lacking in the willpower department? Our experts shared some ways you can flex your willpower muscle.
Think back on your accomplishments.
“First, notice the times in your life where you’ve actually displayed the ability to tolerate discomfort for a longer term good that you deemed worthwhile,” says Bea.
Once you can get a list of those accomplishments together, then you’ll see that willpower might be something you had all along but didn’t know it.
One simple example would be not scratching an itch.
“That’s small, but it’s a way to display to yourself that you’re able to tolerate discomfort,” says Bea.
Remember your strategy.
Bea says that the number one reason people don’t reach their goals is because they lack a good strategy.
“Try to understand, for the many things that one has accomplished it wasn’t just willpower.
There may have been a strategy that one employed,” he explains.
Cut yourself some slack
Carmichael believes that willpower is a finite resource.
“We only have so much self-discipline available at any given point in time,” she says.
Because we may not be able to both start a strict diet and quit smoking at the same time, it’s wise to use willpower strategically.
“For example, if you’re going to a cocktail party and the goal is to avoid overindulging on hors d’oeuvres, give yourself leeway in some other department allow yourself to take a taxi to the party instead of the subway, skip the towering stilettos, or plan to sleep in late the next morning,” she says.
In order to achieve your goal, offer yourself an incentive for your discomfort.
For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, offer yourself a financial incentive.
For each day that you don’t smoke, compensate yourself for that discomfort.
As a longer-term incentive, pick out something you really want and use that “discomfort money” to buy it.
This employs the use of a strategy because you’re compensating yourself for your discomfort.
You have incentive because you want that financial reward, and if you fail then you have the same incentive the next day to go for it again.
Carmichael says that yoga and meditation are excellent tools to increase willpower.
“Yoga involves mindful awareness of many things, sometimes including minor physical discomfort anyone had their quads burn during warrior pose before?” she says.
“Learning to greet minor discomfort as a welcome sign of growth, while keeping your mind focused on the pose, helps build willpower and strength of mind.”
Makeover Your Goals
If you really want to work on cultivating willpower, take a second look at your goals.
Makeover your goals so you’re more likely to reach them.
First, keep goals small, measurable, and systematic.
Remember to celebrate small successes, and ditch disqualifying self-talk like “I can’t,” “I’ll never,” and “It’s impossible.”
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