A lot of us know what we need to do to secure good health and stave off diseases like cancer. We all know we need to eat right, exercise, reduce stress, practice gratitude.
But actually doing those things can be tough. Not only do you have to make time for good choices, you also need the willpower to get out there and make it happen.
So I think it’s worth discussing some trusted techniques for summoning the willpower we all need to develop so we can stick to good health habits.
I speak as a sugar addict and someone who’s never liked exercise much, so this is a battle for me the same as for most people. . .
Human to the core
I once read a quote that if you put a piece of cake in front of a hungry man, he’s going to eat it. It doesn’t matter if he’s on a diet, or if he’s trying to avoid sugar or food coloring or carbs. I sure would. I’m picturing Black Forest cake, my favorite.
That’s because our willpower is only as strong, and sometimes not as strong as, our human needs. The man who eats the cake isn’t a bad person, nor is he weak. He’s just hungry.
Really, it’s a brain thing. The concept of willpower is just a tug-of-war between logical conclusions you worked out in your prefrontal cortex – what you know you should do – matched in a smackdown against the power-pull of your primal appetites and emotions.
As it turns out, willpower is a finite resource. We only have so much of it.
According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, any act of resisting temptation (like that cake) leaves you less capable of resisting anything else you’re trying to power past, or any difficult choice you have to make.
And that’s just average, daily temptation for the average person on a normal day. When you’re battling a serious disease like cancer or facing the emotional toll of watching a friend or family member fight through it, your energy reserves – including willpower – are even further depleted.
Who among us doesn’t reach for comfort foods when we’ve had a bad day?
And then the depleted willpower leads to more weak moments and bad decisions. It affects what you eat, what you think, and whether you engage in any positive health behaviors like exercise, meditation, or even laughing with friends. The following may help…
Identify your “strong hour”
Everybody has a “strong” hour during the day when willpower is highest and the ability to make good decisions is strongest. For most people, it occurs in the morning, after a solid night’s sleep. Though there are exceptions, such as people who feel best following a midday nap or those who find their energy levels soar in the evenings.
The first step in bolstering willpower is to identify your “strong time” and alter your schedule so you tackle your biggest challenges then. If getting to the gym or sitting down to meditate is a stumbling block, set up your day so you do that hard thing when you’re feeling your strongest. And then do it.
There’s an additional upside here. If you go ahead and do the hardest thing you have trouble getting motivated to do, then – guess what – you’ve just scored a win! Meaning, if you know you’ve already done that one hard thing you haven’t been able to get to for weeks, and you still have hours left in the day, you’ll be that much stronger when you go on to make other willpower-based decisions.
Whereas a failure further lessens your willpower, a win makes it stronger. And it just builds from there, in whichever direction you’ve started your day.
I was raised in a church where they put a lot of emphasis on strengthening the will. It’s like a muscle. You work it out, it gets stronger.
6 Simple strategies to boost your willpower
There are several other proven techniques for bolstering willpower and keeping up motivation. For example:
Purge temptations. If junk food is your weak spot, get it out of the house. You’ll be healthier for not having it around, and you won’t be faced with a continual onslaught of enticements that detract from good health. I don’t have sweets in the house. When I get the yen, they just aren’t there, and I’m not going out to a store. I’m not that much of an addict.
Distract and bribe. If you have the impulse to binge or drink or eat something you’re trying to avoid, try the “if—then” technique. This is where you make the agreement to do the thing you really want to do – like head out to a fast food joint for a burger, but only if you first follow through on a healthy behavior, like 30 minutes on the exercise bike or writing a page in a gratitude journal. More often than not, the healthy behavior will heighten your confidence and commitment to health so that when you’re done, you won’t want that burger after all.
Build an army. As anyone fighting a life-threatening disease knows, a support system plays multiple roles in keeping your spirits up and helping you past challenges. If you have a temptation you’re trying to overcome, like alcohol or smoking, or if you’re trying to get the hang of a smart new health behavior, like yoga, tell someone you know who supports you, and ask for their help. Being accountable to someone else and knowing they’re rooting for you is an effective way to stay strong – because you have someone else holding you up.
Get out of Dodge. Sometimes, it’s our environment that’s our worst enemy. Even if you have unhealthy foods purged from your environment, you may still feel enormous stress or emotional angst based on where you live, who you live with, or any number of other stressful factors. It could even be your job, your coworkers, or the level of pollution in your city.
If that’s the case, the best thing to do is move. Yes, it’s a pain, but it can be just what you need. Even if you can’t pull off a full relocation to another town, you might be able to move to another house, stay with a friend, work remotely from a new place, or switch jobs. Getting yourself out of a stressful situation that muddles your mental strength is often worth the effort it takes to make the change.
Explore little wins. Overhauling your diet and your physical health can be a major thing, especially in our culture or if you’ve spent years living and eating a certain way. If you build yourself up with little wins, like waking up just five minutes earlier or forcing yourself to change a speech pattern (like dropping a habitual swear word), then little by little you’ll extend your willpower.
Forgive your humanness. You’re human, and you will slip up. But giving in to one unhealthy meal or a week of not exercising is not going to doom you to a life of disease and an early death. It doesn’t define who you are. Forgive any mistakes you make and move forward with the resolve to keep trying. It’s all any of us can do.
So many things, from laughing more to walking outside to eating farm-fresh plant foods are proven to improve our health and bolster our immune systems against foes like cancer.
But none of that does any good unless you’re first able to summon the willpower it takes to do those things. Follow these six strategies until your good health behaviors become a habit. Here’s hoping a long and healthy life is your reward in the end!
- “15 Ways to Boost Mental Energy Levels.” By Mike Fishbein for Lifehack.
- “How to Boost Your Willpower to Help Make Healthy Choices Easy.”
- “Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative.” By Vohs, K. D. Motivation Science, 1(S), 19-42.