“i keep fixing every habit//that i break.”
I made a promise to myself at the start of the summer of 2019 to stay physically and mentally fit. I developed schedules and regiments to read more and eat better and move more and write better. As I update this blog, I unfortunately have to admit that most of those plans fell through or were modified to basically continue my current, unhealthy lifestyle. I lack willpower; that’s obvious. I give up too easily. It was gross and misty this morning, so I didn’t go for my morning walk. I rolled over and went back to sleep, defeated. I gorged myself on pasta at dinner, making a million and one rationalizations for such piggish behavior. I’m tired and I’m always battling my depression and it’s rainy and work was hard: all those complaints become justifications for my bad behaviors, but I don’t want to live like that anymore. I have the desire, but sadly, that’s not enough. I
N E E D willpower.
What is willpower? The American Psychology Association defines willpower as: “…the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” That is precisely what I struggle with, so I did some more internet research and luckily, I stumbled upon an awesome article titled “The Science of Willpower: How to Train Your Productivity Muscle” by Oksana Tunikova. In that, she writes, “Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere.”
Without getting too science-y, I wanted to understand how scientists know what they know about willpower. The concept has been studied numerous times, but those in the know seem to agree that there are three key studies that tell us everything we should know when it comes to willpower:
- Stanford Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel: “Children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward right away or having a double-portion after waiting for around 15 minutes. Kids who managed to delay gratification were believed to have stronger willpower (an obvious conclusion). The study, however, did not stop there. The young participants of the Marshmallow Test were actually subject to long-term evaluation. Over the course of years, it turned out that those who were able to delay gratification as kids had better life outcomes as adults. Life success was measured in terms of education, performance at work, health, and other metrics” (source).
But what does this mean? To put the findings of the study in practical terms, to apply them to my own life, I realize that willpower is essential in meeting absolutely all of the goals I’ve set out for myself. If I’m able to make a schedule and stick with it, then I will be able to do anything technically.
- “Roy Baumeister is another important figure on the willpower-science scene. In collaboration with other scientists, Dr. Baumeister discovered that our will, just like a muscle, can be fatigued if we spend too much time on activities that require self-control. According to Baumeister, the strength of our willpower depends on the level of energy available in our brain at a given moment. To support his point of view, Baumeister ran an experiment that involved hard-to-resist foods. Participants had to withstand the temptation of eating chocolate and complete a series of mental tasks afterward. Those who managed to resist food temptation appeared to be more fatigued and performed worse in mental tasks” (source).
But what does this mean? This helps me relax about relaxing. I really have to accept the fact that “all or nothing at all” is not a concept that can apply to my life. When I fall, or when I fail, it cannot be enough to defeat me. I have to remember that it is natural and normal to fall short and in bouncing back is how I will strengthen my own willpower. It seems contradictory, and maybe even ironic, but still, it makes sense because we cannot know darkness without light and we cannot know success without failure. So instead of rolling over and being defeated, I need to begin again.
- “Back in 2010, a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Veronika Job and her colleagues suggested that our own beliefs about willpower might play a key role. A series of experiments proved that when we believe that our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. Meanwhile, those who believe that willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, demonstrate greater self-control and are not likely to lose will under depleted circumstances” (source).
But what does this mean? When I was going to therapy regularly, my therapist stressed the importance of loving myself (and so did my priest). I’m beginning to understand that loving myself includes believing in myself. I need to be nice to myself and tell myself that I am lovely, that I am strong, that I am capable of great things, that I will be published again, that I will lose the weight, and that I will be loved,.
So throughout my research, it became obvious to me that willpower is important, if not crucial, in determining success in any endeavor. Based on the three studies discussed above, it is apparent to me that willpower is as important as I believe it to be, and that it can be developed. To develop willpower, it is best to think of it as a muscle. “To strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise” and “When you overwork, muscles get tired and will need time to recover” (source). So, again, having one cheat meal a week is okay, but it is key to not let that cheat meal turn into a cheat day, which turns into a cheat week because I am not disciplined enough. But when I feel tired, I can rest, because indulging in being lazy twice a month is actually an effective way to give my willpower and self-control time to recover and “…restore its energy levels” (source).
But what does this look like in practice, in real life?
- Exercise daily. “The trick, however, is to start small and build up” (source). Walking every day is fine to start with and I plan on continuing to do so even while I’m on vacation next week in Florida. But I’ve been walking for two months and my weight loss has slowed and while I fear it might be mostly because I’ve been slacking in counting calories, I might also need a physical boost. I remember reading somewhere that a person should change up her exercise routine after a few weeks. Upon returning from Florida, I am going to start running but I’ll walk if I need to.
- Feed your brain the right food. “Willpower and decision-making are closely related. .. Studies suggest that poor diet makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you were well fed. To this end, the same advice to start small goes a long way” (source). This was another validation for me; I’ve been investigating The Mediterranean Diet for some time now and it’s time I got started. I have an entire cookbook and even more recipes printed from the internet. I could just start with breakfast, or a dinner once a week, because the article advises to “Keep changes small so that your brain doesn’t realize a change has been made. In no time, you can build up your willpower skills” (source).
- Develop your own reward system. “If you break your big goal into a few smaller goals and assign a valuable reward for each small goal achieved, your willpower will be activated” (source). My original weight loss plan did have goals for incremental weight loss. For example, if I lost five pounds, I would treat myself to a movie. And if I lost twenty pounds, I’d get a hair cut. It’s time to find my original list and hang it up on my fridge so losing all the weight I’ve gained will seem more possible and I’ll have something to look forward to along the way.
- Train your willpower, but don’t overdo it. Hence why cheat meals and lazy days are so important, and that helps me breath easier.
- Work on your stress levels. “According to studies on the connection between stress and willpower, goal-oriented behavior suffers when our fight-or-flight signaling is on” (source). My stress has always been difficult for me to manage. Before I developed better coping skills and healthier habits, I used to suffer from severe, complex migraines. They seemed like small strokes; I wouldn’t be able to talk or remember things, and one side of my body would be numb. The vision in my right eye would resemble a television screen with static. There’d also be blinding, horrible pain. Exercising helped, but I want to implement a yoga regiment and spend much more time reading and writing. I also need to continue turning my home into a cozy sanctuary, even if it is little by little due to financial constraints. I should put fresh flowers in different rooms. I also need to start seriously planning my garden.
- Set realistic goals. “Set goals that are big enough to be motivating but still doable. Alternatively, break your goals down into sub-tasks and work on one smaller goal at a time” (source).
When I get down on myself, I need to remind myself of the following things:
- Willpower gets stronger with regular use. You can train your willpower with small things like making your bed every morning or choosing a fruit over a cookie at least twice a week. Start small and scale it up as your self-control skills grow.
- Willpower is a muscle you can train. “Hear this: You are not forever bound to your bad habits. Of course, some poor habits might be hard to break, but as long as you keep your goal in mind and work on strengthening your willpower, nothing is impossible. You can become a better version of yourself; the power to make this happen is always within you” (source). I WILL READ THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY.
It is also helpful to remember that: “21 days is the minimum time needed to build a new habit” (source). That’s three weeks; that’s not so bad! I will give myself time. I will love myself. I will be patient with myself.
Next week, I’ll share my three-week plan for kick starting my plan to become a strong, more motivated woman. Will you join me? Do you want to become more motivated? Have you ever thought about how to be the best version of yourself?