Increase your willpower, achieve your goals

Staff - usatoday.com - 03/05/2012
Body and Brain

Psychologist Elaine Ducharme says several of her friends and patients rattled off laundry lists of resolutions at the beginning of the year, including eating healthier, exercising daily, losing weight and simplifying their lives. But a few weeks later, many had given up, saying they didn't have the willpower to follow through.

Her advice: Focus on one thing at a time and work on ways to delay instant gratification. You can learn techniques to increase your willpower and achieve your goal, says Ducharme, who is in private practice in Glastonbury, Conn.

About 93% of people say they set a goal to change a behavior this year, according to a new survey of 566 adults conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association. Lack of willpower is the No. 1 reason that people give for falling short. But the majority (71%) think willpower is something they can learn.

"It turns out that they are right," says psychologist Steven Breckler, APA's executive director for science who has reviewed the research on this topic. Willpower goes by many definitions, including self-control and delaying gratification, he says. "It's the ability to resist immediate temptation in order to achieve some longer-term goal."

Studies show that some people are better at resisting temptation than others, he says. "They seem to innately have more self-control."

Part of the problem for many people is that resisting temptation takes a lot of mental energy, Breckler says. You have to talk to yourself, distract yourself and remind yourself of the longer-term goal. That can lead to mental exhaustion, which is the enemy of self-control, he says.

But you can strengthen that ability. He compares willpower to a muscle. Some people's muscles are stronger than others', but if you work your muscles wisely, you can make them stronger, he says. Here are some ways to increase your willpower:

•Practice self-control. Research shows that if you exercise willpower in moderate amounts regularly, it gets stronger, Breckler says. So if you resist temptation to eat a doughnut on several occasions, you'll be better able to resist them, he says. "Practicing self-control on anything seems to increase self-control for everything."

Anything you practice, you can get better at, Ducharme agrees. Many adults and children need to cut back on the amount they text-message, e-mail and check Facebook. To do that, she suggests not bringing your cellphone to the dinner table or checking for text messages when you are having a conversation with another person.

•Find smart trade-offs. You can learn not to give in to impulse by making more thoughtful choices. For instance, instead of having a bowl of ice cream, you might have a cup of coffee with a teaspoon of sugar or some flavored creamer, Ducharme says. If you're satisfied, you've strengthened your resolve to resist ice cream.

•Find someone to hold you accountable. It makes it easier to reach your goal because someone else is supporting you, Ducharme says. To begin working out regularly, get a walking buddy or exercise partner. Or post your goal on Facebook and ask friends to help you to stick to it.

•Reduce temptations. It's easier to be successful if you're not bombarded by temptations, Breckler says. If you're trying to reduce your credit-card debt, then take only cash with you when shopping. "It relieves you of the burden of exercising self-control."

•Set short-term, realistic goals. Trying to lose 25 pounds can be daunting, but shooting to lose five pounds may be less so, Ducharme says. After you lose a few pounds and your pants are a little less tight, you may be encouraged to keep going.

•Reward yourself with feedback. When it comes to exercise, you can track the amount you've done or the calories you burned, Breckler says. Or you can plot your weight loss over time. There are many websites, apps and devices to help you do this. "Anything that rewards you for your willpower serves to strengthen it in the future."

•Have a plan. If you have diabetes and work at an office where people are bringing in birthday cakes and doughnuts, keep some fruit or other healthy treats in your desk so you can eat those, Ducharme says. "You'll have to use less self-control if you have planned ahead."

•Focus on one goal at a time. The more goals you have, the less likely you are to achieve them, because every goal has its own set of self-control needs and depletes your mental energy reserves, Breckler says. "Research suggests focusing on one goal at a time and making progress on achieving that. If you are trying to exercise self-control in many areas of your life, you may deplete your mental reserves quickly. That's the kind of exhaustion that's the enemy of self-control."

•Evaluate your motivation. The goal has to be something you want, Ducharme says. If someone else is telling you to do it, your chances of failing are higher. You may think you didn't have the willpower, but it could be that you didn't want it badly enough, she says.

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