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Willpower Through!

How to harness Willpower to start, finish and go to the following task

Willpower is like fuel in a car, first, you have it in you and then when running low it runs out with the next task tackled.

Or it can be sustained by a challenge, you are tired or demotivated but you know that as soon as you engage you will be recharged.

Ongoing research by psychologists suggests that these two perspectives on willpower are self-fulfilling.

It’s all in the mind!

Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and her colleagues at Stanford University tested this by asking 60 students whether willpower is a limited resource that’s depleted by effort, or if it’s potentially unlimited and recharged by a challenge. Next, the students were given two taxing mental tasks in succession. The first was an awkward editing task; the second involved naming the actual colour of colour words while ignoring their meaning (e.g. the word “green” written in red).

For students who believed that willpower is a limited resource, giving them an extra tricky editing task left them frazzled for the colour-naming challenge and their performance suffered as a result. It was a different story for the students who saw their willpower as unlimited. They performed just as well on the colour-naming challenge regardless of whether the editing task was made extra difficult or not.

In other words, whatever the students believed about willpower ended up coming true.

Of course, a problem with this study is that it’s possible the students who saw willpower as unlimited really did have a lot of willpower.

Fortunately, there’s evidence that suggests it’s easy to optimize our mindset, with potential benefits for our willpower performance. Here’s how to do it:

1. Know your ally

The prefrontal cortex (that section of the brain right behind your forehead) is the part that helps us with things like decision-making and regulating our behaviour. Self-control, or willpower, falls under this heading, and thus is taken care of in this part of the brain.

2. Get quality nutrition

To be effective at controlling our urges and making sound decisions, the prefrontal cortex needs to be looked after. That means feeding it with good-quality food so it has enough energy to do its job.

Brain-loving foods like fish, nuts, blueberries, avocado, raw carrots and wholegrain will give your mind the most power.

3. Exercise!

Physical activity goes in hand with better brain structure, allowing us to think better. This is because physical activity enhances levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain, e.g. acetylcholine.

Exercise improves goal-directed activity. This includes selecting, planning and coordinating actions, as well as ignoring distracters and managing several pieces of information at once allowing inhibition and flexible thinking.

It doesn’t have to be hard, starting with a 10 min. walk and escalating to a 20min. workout can be your first step into heightening willpower.

4. Meditation, the ultimate brain workout

Kelly McGonigal Ph.D., who teaches a class on The Science of Willpower at Stanford University, ranks meditation as the #1 way to increase willpower.

She affirms that practising mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up the grey matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision-making.

5. Put in the right amount of sleep

McGonigal also says getting enough sleep makes a big difference to how efficiently our prefrontal cortex works. Sleep deprivation, she states, is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy.

One of the most acclaimed sleep researchers, Daniel Kripke, found in a recent study that “people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive.”

Ensuring enough night's sleep and napping can do wonders for our inner power.

6. Take the offensive!

a. Plan ahead

Build up your self-control by exercising it regularly in small ways. Don't crash diet. Don't try to do too much at once. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list.

b. Become accountable for your goals.

Let people know what you are up to, friends that will support you and ask you where you are at with your milestones.

c. Create Smart Goals

Make your goals clear, make them: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

d. Burn your bridges

Engineer a situation that will prevent you from retreating and that will force you to get into action mode.

For example, before Albert, a friend of mine who is really good at computer servicing created his workshops on programming, he sent out an email telling more than a thousand people that the courses were going to start at a certain date, a month and a half later.

At that point, he had yet to build any of the content or marketing material. But now he had burned the ships. He had no choice but to get it done. And he did. It’s risky business but it puts things in perspective and it is way better than just doing nothing.

e. Affirm yourself

How we think about willpower seems highly suggestible, which then affects our performance. Affirmations are not wishful thinking fads, they focus our the mind and remind us where we want to go.

So the next time you’re confronted by a daunting task late in the day, remind yourself that mental perseverance is often a case of “mind over mind.”

If you see your goals or tasks as a draining chore, it’s likely you really will act as though mentally exhausted. But if you see the work as a challenge that will engage your mind and bring all the benefits and outcomes desired, you’ll find that you rise to the occasion.

Jennifer Zea for The Creative Workshops Blog

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