Many consider September to be the ‘other’ New Year because its arrival signals the end of summer vacation and the start of school. This return to routine and so-called ‘regular life’ is also a time when many people make resolutions to improve their lives and health. However, by the start of October, when life has resumed and schedules fill it can be difficult to keep up; commitments to new goals often waver. Understanding the psychology behind willpower can help you to harness your strength and succeed in whatever goals you set.
People mistakenly believe that willpower is an internal thing, a quality or an element of personality that some have but others lack. The truth is that we all have willpower and its abilities are limitless. But willpower is like a muscle: we can only use it so much before it tires and needs a break. Retailers know this, so it’s no accident that low-cost-high-profit items like candy and magazines are located near the checkouts in the grocery store – after using willpower to make so many decisions throughout the rest of the store, shoppers are often so fatigued that by the time they make it to the cashier they have little left in the tank to withstand the temptations of sugary sweets and trashy magazines. Knowing how to conserve our important willpower resources and use them effectively greatly improves our chances of succeeding in realizing life goals.
One useful strategy is to break activities that require large amounts of effort into several smaller activities that each require less effort. Consider exercise as an example. It is tremendously difficult to begin an exercise routine because it takes a lot of energy and our environment may be set up to keep us sedentary. At the end of a busy day, going from resting to exercising may require more effort than is available, leaving us open to feeling defeated.
Although exercising does require a lot of effort, it’s easier to start by avoiding using all of it all at once. Instead of doing it all in a single step, focus your willpower only on the very next step in the process: Put on your exercise gear. Once that’s done it will become increasingly more likely that you’ll take the second step and get yourself outside or onto the workout machine. From there it won’t require much additional effort to begin. And once you’ve started, it will be that much easier to increase your effort to something that offers good health benefits.
By focusing on small steps that you link into longer chains of action you can put yourself into contexts where your natural motivations take over and desired goals feel easier to achieve.
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice where we focus on helping people improve their lives.