yes, it is (im)possible

01/01/2018


by anne lueneburger

slava

Willpower    /’WIΙ paVe® = capacity to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions

Have you already made your New Years resolution for 2018? If you have and you do succeed, you are part of an elite minority of 8 percent that achieves their goal. What makes it so (damn) hard to succeed?

Slava Koza, a 33-year old chess instructor from New Jersey, led a pretty ordinary life. Everything changed when he fell madly in love with Alina, a New York City ballet dancer who did not love him back. Heartbroken, he was determined to prove that he would go to the end of the world for her. He started running 50 miles a day, first through the US, then Europe. Mile for mile he pushed forward, despite swollen feet, aching knees and a heavy heart. Even when Alina told him that she had started dating someone else, did Slava not stop running.

What allows one person to push through hardship where another would long give up? The phenomenon of willpower has long occupied psychology and neuroscience. Willpower as a psychological trait is the game changer in life: it is a key predictor of happiness and well-being. People who have superior willpower do get better grades in school, have higher levels of confidence, are more successful in their careers, have stronger relationships, and are physically healthier and live longer.

So if willpower carries so many benefits, why do we struggle to resist that extra helping of Tiramisu or getting out of our chair for a 5K run? While willpower varies based on our DNA, it does not really explain why we slouch on the couch. The reason we fail to achieve future dreams is that we frequently do not know how to use and strengthen our willpower in the here and now.

The bad news is: willpower functions like a muscle, it tires when overused. On average we spend about 4 hours a day challenging ourselves to make good choices and decision fatigue creeps in. The good news is: like a muscle, we can train and grow our willpower. Princeton trained psychologist Roy Baumeister shows in his research that with clever tactics we can increase our ability to achieve our goals by a whooping 89 percent. Here is how:

1. Set a measurable, achievable goal: the more specific you make your goal (i.e. what, by when, how) the more likely you are to stay on track.

Do: Read this if you want to learn more how to make change stick.

2. Get the basics right. Attend to your willpower physiology  such as sleep, following a healthy diet, and exercising. Without a basic life hygiene we are setting ourselves up to fail.

Do: Daily get 7-9 hours of sleep, aim for a minimum of 35 minutes of exercise, and, as Michael Pollen said: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

3. Envision your future self. The more we feel that our future self is a stranger, the less likely we are to protect it. However, if we feel familiar with our future self we are twice as likely to invest in our long-term vision. We procrastinate less and we are more likely to make sacrifices in the here and now for a better future.

Do: Imagine yourself in your future daily life in great detail, even to the degree of imagining yourself grocery shopping. Write a letter from your future self to your present self: who you are, what you are doing, where you are living, what you care about. Thank your present self and why it matters. Be optimistic in this letter and imagine the positive effects of making that change. Create a 3-D avatar; what does your future self look like? Feel like that future self is real and in some way you. Also, think about what will it feel like if you do not make that change.

4. Plan for obstacles. Even if it is nice to envision success, be interested in how you might fail and plan your responses. Predict when you might be tempted to break your vow and it prepares you to make good decisions in the face of temptation. Optimism motivates, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed and we can better manage the shock factor when we have a set back.

Do: Ask yourself: What will be the biggest obstacle(s)? When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur? What can I do to prevent it? What specific thing will I do to get back to my goal when this obstacle happens?

5. Practice self-compassion. The harder (shame & guilt) you are on yourself when you get off track, the more likely you are to fail again. We are human and set backs are bound to happen. In fact, studies show that when people are reminded of their to-date progress they are much more likely to do something that interferes with their future success.

Do: Go for encouragement over criticism: Think about what you would say to a friend if they failed.

6. Surf the urge. It is hard for us humans not to give in to temptation in the moment. During a 2007 study of chimpanzees and humans, both groups were offered two favorite snacks now or six favorite snacks later if they waited two minutes. While 72% of the chimpanzees were able to wait out the two minutes, only 19% of the humans were prepared to make the short term sacrifice.

Do: Notice your thought, craving or feeling. Accept this inner experience. Breathe in to the count of 5, hold on the count of 6, and breathe out on the count of 7. Do this several times a day and give your brain and body a chance to pause and plan. Broaden your attention, and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal.

7. Never break the chain twice.  Progress will happen even if you take baby steps. Say you want to stop eating meat but have set backs. As long as you make sure that you never have two set backs in a row (i.e. eating meat during two consecutive meals), you will slowly but surely get closer to achieving your goal by pure mathematics.

Do: Watch this.

And as for love-struck Slava, you might wonder? After running more than 10,000 miles, Alina finally went out with him for another date. Like a good fairy tale with a happy ending, Slava got the girl.

slava and alina

Slava is likely among the few lucky ones who are born with a high degree of determination. For the rest of us, while we are unable to draw on what Mother Nature didn’t give us, we can use the tactics described earlier and build good habits. Creating automated processes will help us overcome decision fatigue and use the willpower resources we have more effectively.

With this, borrowing from Star Wars, May the force be with you in 2018!

Read more:

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

 

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