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Increase Willpower

Updated: Jan 12

Do you find yourself putting this off until tomorrow, next week, or next year? When you start making progress, do you sometimes find yourself sabotaging your efforts? When you’re under stress, how often do you end up taking it out on your family, friends or co-workers?

These are all common willpower traps. While you may think that willpower is a gift bestowed on a few lucky individuals, it isn’t. Willpower is a skill you can learn and strengthen. Many willpower strategies are easy to implement but often are contrary to our instincts and our cultural norms.

Overcoming procrastination
Overcoming procrastination

There’s a saying that success breeds success. In the world of willpower, success often breeds self-sabotage. Why? Our brains are constantly balancing our desire to achieve our long-term goals with our desire for immediate satisfaction. For example, long term we may want to have money for retirement, but right now, we want to enjoy our life. As our savings grow, that family vacation, cleaning service or little black dress may feel like more of a need than a luxury.

Here are some willpower tips from The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. There’s a psychological concept called moral licensing. Moral licensing says that when we do something we think we “should” do, we feel like we’ve been “good” and that we deserve a reward. This reward frequently feeds our immediate desires, resulting in self-sabotage. The good news is there’s a simple remedy: remember our why. For example, I have a huge sweet tooth, but I’ve learned that when I eat too many sweets, I become emotionally unstable. When I’ve had a hard week at work, my first inclination is to reward myself with sweets. Doing this, however, would ensure that the following week would be rough! When I remember this, I’m able choose a reward that won’t leave me suffering.

This all sounds very logical, but don’t be fooled. Our brains don’t obey the rules of logic. It’s been shown repeatedly in restaurant studies that when there is a healthy option added to the menu, purchases of the least healthy items increase.

When we see the opportunity to make a healthy choice, we feel like we’ve met a long-term goal, so our immediate desire wins out! A corollary to this is feeling great satisfaction from making a to do list even though nothing has been accomplished other than making a list! A willpower strategy that can be effective here is to institute a rule that whatever you do today you must do every day for the rest of the month. This makes it harder to ignore the impact satisfying that immediate desire. It helps us remember our why and choose to act in our best long-term interest.

Let me just mention one more willpower trap that feels really counter intuitive and counter to our culture. We often think we need to be hard on ourselves to increase our willpower. This is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. It’s been proven that self-forgiveness is more effective at increasing willpower. Why? When we beat ourselves up, we’re more focused on feeling better than learning from our mistakes.

I found The Willpower Instinct so entertaining and science packed that after reading it I reached out to Kelly McGonigal to ask if I could teach it in a book club format. I was thrilled when she said yes! My 10-week Science of Willpower program has helped people increase their self-awareness and willpower and most importantly reach their goals.

Let me leave you with one last tip. The reason I run this as a group program is that surrounding yourself with others who are on a common mission is another proven willpower strategy.


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