How To Increase Willpower and Self-Control:

Do you struggle to find the willpower and self-control you need to achieve what you want to? It's something I hear a lot from clients, how they lack the willpower they need, whether that's to stop smoking, lose weight, get exercising, study, get to bed earlier or any number of other areas. 

When it comes to taking action and making better decisions, almost all of us struggle at one time of another to act in our own best interests or to forego something that seems more enjoyable or easier right now (especially compared to much longer term goals). 

You know what you ought to be doing yet, even knowing this, you find that your willpower, motivation and self-control quickly evaporate. It may seem like one ever lasting battle with yourself to make better decisions for yourself. All those short term temptations and rewards are irresistible and we give in and promise ourselves we'll do better in the future; for example, in our eating habits where we take the sugary/fattening option in front of us (who has told themselves when it's gone, it's gone and then I'll be healthier?), or quitting smoking (but the habits and stress kicks in so the decision gets pushed to another time) or it could be procrastinating by watching that next episode on Netflix, having a look at one more you Tube video, 'quickly' checking out social media or surfing the net and a whole host of other things that can mean you don't get around to exercising or getting stuff done or getting enough sleep.  

Knowing what we should be doing isn't enough to stop us doing what we want to do in that moment. We struggle to prioritise our long term goals over our more immediate behaviours and choices (and all the while promising ourselves that we will do better in the future).

Willpower and self-control are things we need more and more to make sure we achieve what we want to rather than jumping from one urge and instant reward to another. So how can you increase willpower and self-control so that you actually make stuff happen?. 

how to increase willpower and Self control hypnotherapy ely

 

Reducing Failures of Willpower and Self-Control

This morning my alarm went off, as it does three times a week, at 5.30am so I can get up and ready for bootcamp. I'm not going to pretend that I jump out of bed like an over-excited cat and bounce around the house merrily whistling a happy tune. In fact, most mornings I grumble to myself, wish I could have another hour in bed, drag my weary body to the kettle and start on the caffeine. Sometimes I don't think I even wake up until I've arrived at camp and we are through the warm up.

When they learn about my bootcamps and running, many clients comment that they admire my willpower and motivation to exercise up to six times a week and to keep going. I aim to rarely miss a session, simply because by making it a habit to get up and go, it becomes easier and more automatic. If I was to start offering myself excuses or asking myself if I felt like getting up, then as soon as I caved in once, it would become so much easier to do it time and time again.  

Added to that, the desire to be fit and healthy (and to avoid the unhappiness of being fat as I was when younger) gives me enough motivation to make it happen and certainly there is a slight competitive element that means I don't want to be lazing about in bed and then later seeing the photos online of everyone else working hard and progressing. And I also know that after the session, I'm going to feel so, so much better in myself mentally and physically. 

But that's just what works for me in this area of my life. What can you do to boost willpower and reduce failures of self-control? 

Almost everyone struggles in some area of their life to act in their own best interests, particularly when doing so means giving up an immediately enjoyable alternative (like an extra hour in bed!). That struggle can lead to overeating, procrastination, unhealthy habits, unproductive behaviours and other self-defeating stuff that may feel better in the immediate moment but generally lead to feeling bad, disappointment, a sense of failure, stress and anxiety. 

 willpower hypnotherapy in ely

Well, last year Duckworth et al (2019) of the University of Pennsylvania published a review of the evidence and research on approaches to reducing failures of self-control and I've covered some of the more pertinent strategies here in this article ('Beyond willpower: Strategies for reducing failures of self-control' - Duckworth et al. (2019)). 

We can often feel like we are constantly in a battle with ourselves over exercising self-control towards achieving longer term beneficial outcomes and an immediate desire to do something else right now. We often give in to those temptations and instant rewards that make us feel a bit better for a short time but ultimately don't help us progress.

As the researchers put it, "The special case of self-control conflict entails a tension between want and should: A “should” behaviour (e.g., exercising, eating healthy, going to bed early) is more valuable in the long-run, whereas an alternative “want” behavior (e.g., staying on the couch, eating junk food, staying up late) is more alluring in the moment…When people pursue the option with more enduring value, they experience self-control success; when they pursue the option that is more tempting right now, they experience self-control failure."

They also point out the interesting human tendency whereby when we think of future choices they tend to focus on what we should be doing (e.g. I'll exercise next Wednesday or I'll eat healthily from Monday) in contrast to the kind of decisions we make right now, which are often all about immediate gratification. We really are very capable of kidding ourselves about what we will do in future so we can allow ourselves to give in to temptation right now. 

And our self-awareness about our own self-control can be askew too. One day we may feel like we are unfit, overweight and overtired and need to do something about it, yet another day we can feel certain that this isn't the case at all.  I've certainly found this to be the case in my own life. On a day where I feel I've eaten too much or I haven't exercised I may look at my stomach in the mirror and think how I need to battle any impulses to eat unhealthy snacks, only to find that on a day when I've exercised and feel good that I decide that my behaviours don't need to change at all.

Many people I work with believe that they lack the willpower they need to make, and persist, with positive changes. And sometimes willpower gets equated with just trying to force ourselves to do something with sheer effort and in the absence of any other situational or cognitive changes. Usually such an approach runs out of steam because it's just plain hard work to maintain it.

As the research shows, with regard to improving our willpower and self-control, there are two kinds of things we can do for ourselves. Firstly we can make deliberate changes to our environment to create incentives and obstructions that encourage long term goals over short term temptations. And secondly, we can take action to change the way we think to make longer term choices more appealing or actionable and short term temptations less so.

Incentives & Barriers to Help Increase Willpower and Self-Control

Situational interventions  

Situational interventions "entail a decision maker's deliberate change of his or her environment to create incentives, obstructions, and affordances favoring long-term goals over short-term temptations."

One way to boost self-control is by eliminating the options available to you in the future. People tend to make more self-controlled choices when deciding about the future than the present. For example, if you have to pre-order what you will eat at a meal tomorrow you will probably make a healthier choice than if you turn up and choose in the moment.

This sort of approach is supported by another research paper that looked at the choices people made about what to eat after exercising. The timing of your snack choice, that is, whether you decide in advance what you will have after exercising or you decide immediately after exercising, can impact on whether you make a healthy choice. The research by Gustafson et al (2018) found that people who chose their snack before they exercised were more likely to select a healthier snack than those who chose immediately prior to having the snack after exercise. Such a simple behavioural change (choosing the snack before exercise rather than after) could certainly help anyone wanting to eat healthier or lose weight (otherwise the less healthy snack after exercise can diminish the benefits of exercise).

In a similar vein, I was chatting to a client recently who voluntarily goes into the office rather than taking the option to work from home because that removes all those distractions like watching TV or doing the laundry when she should be working.

Many people order their food shopping online specifically because they can buy only the things they need and make healthier choices, and in doing so avoid temptation purchases that are everywhere at the supermarket. I've also found that committing to an early morning run with someone means that I will get up, ready and out quicker than if I am deciding what time to leave because it's easy to procrastinate.

Thus research suggests people can improve their future happiness "by voluntarily eliminating options they would otherwise have available in the future. These self-imposed constraints improve welfare because they prevent (or dissuade) the person from undertaking a self-defeating future action."

There are now more ways to procrastinate and get distracted than ever with such things as Facebook, Instagram, You Tube and Netflix. And so other examples of commitment devices mentioned in the review paper are things like intentionally deleting a game from your ipad to avoid wasting time playing it in the future (done that!) or downloading software that limits the amount of time you can be on social media or surf the web.

Another way of changing the environment to help you achieve your goals is to remove temptations from view or to place barriers in the way. For example, if you want to achieve weight loss then putting unhealthy treats out of sight is a good start. If you can't see them or even don't know they are there then you are much likely to find yourself craving or having them (one useful tip is to put healthy foods on display in your fridge and put unhealthy things in the tinted bottom drawers so when you go to the fridge you notice the good stuff more). Again, if you haven't got unhealthy things in the house you could go out, walk to the shop and walk back but that's going to take at least some effort on your part and you may often decide not to bother. It's why some people often don't keep alcohol or sugary snacks even in their house.

When I work with smokers I will often have them make things more awkward for themselves by keeping their cigarettes somewhere where they would have to go and get them (rather than in their pocket where they can habitually light up without even paying attention). For example, keeping cigarettes in the boot while you drive means you probably can't smoke in the car and probably you won't bother stopping to light up. I've even had people keep their cigarettes in the car and their lighter in the most remote part of their house so they have to deliberately choose to smoke and think about it more. 

You can also positively modify things by, for example, taking your gym kit with you and going straight there to avoid the temptations that could be there if you go home first or, if you want to stop drinking, don't take enough money out with you.

The research also talks about avoiding situations that contain triggers and re-enforcers. So if a smoker wanting to quit might relapse when triggered by friends smoking at a party, then avoiding these situations for a while or adding other barriers and behaviours may be a wise decision to support willpower and self-control. Certainly with pattern based habits like smoking, overeating and excessive drinking, identifying triggers and planning for them is certainly a useful strategy. Anything that requires doing things differently (e.g. a smoker not smoking with coffee or a weight loss client eating slower) will be beneficial. 

Although not mentioned in the paper, I would also suggest that clients write down their motivations and reasons for wanting to change their behaviour, whether that's stopping smoking, achieving weight loss or avoiding procrastination. Often those initial good intentions that motivated us in the first place start to diminish and weaken over time and we may lose track of why we ever even wanted to take positive action. Writing down and reviewing those reasons can help us stay focussed and strengthen our willpower and self-control because we remember and pay attention to the reasons for taking action when we make decisions.

 

Cognitive Interventions

Cognitive interventions "enable people to change the way they think, making long term choices more appealing or actionable and short term temptations less so. Rather than manipulate the objective physical or social elements of a situation, these interventions target mental representations."

Changing the situation to support our goals is definitely beneficial and certainly we want to deliberately change our behaviours and environment yet, we also want to change our mind-set and thinking to support taking positive action (or stopping unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours).  

One way that works to boost willpower and self-control is through goal setting. Setting, specific, difficult goals has been shown to help people achieve higher performance than simply aiming to 'do your best.' More than this, research suggests that goals that are challenging, set publicly and made with a group tend to have higher efficacy. So if you want to lose weight, stop smoking, reduce procrastination or get exercising then set a challenging goal, make it public and try and do it with others.

"Goal-setting is effective in part because goals direct attention and energy toward a desired behaviour. In addition, failure to achieve the reference   point set by the goal feels like a loss, and losses loom larger that gains, creating advanced motivation to persist."

It can also be helpful to break goals up and have sub-goals along the way as these can generate a sense of momentum and success that keep you going.

And so, for example, whenever I've run a marathon in the past I've followed an eighteen week training plan towards my goal and I have some sub goals along the way, such as a shorter race or completing a long twenty mile training run. I've also tended to talk about it with other runners as this adds to accountability and focus, as well as training within the running group whenever I can.

Making a plan pretty much goes hand in hand with achieving goals. You need to think through when, where and how you will take action towards that goal you've set. This may include thinking about how good it will be when you have achieived that goal, and then planning how to handle any obstacles that may stand in the way. It may be time, temptations or other people so you want to identify these and think of effective ways to tackle the obstacles and challenges.

As I mentioned earlier, our focus, motivation and attention can start to wane over time, particularly if we are aiming for a long term goal. How many people, for example, get really fired up and motivated watching the London marathon on TV, decide to enter it and then, having got a place find that buzz has evaporated before they've barely run a mile. It's the same with weight loss; maybe you look in the mirror or notice your clothes are tight and so you resolve to take action, only to find that a few days or weeks later you are back to old habits. It's also why that New Year's resolution that is at the top of your priority list on 1st January has probably lost all its drive and urgency by the end of the month (or sooner!).

"Many self-controlled behaviours must be enacted consistently over time to yeiled significant benefits....for example, resisting dessert, studying, going for a run, or saving a few dollars for retirement all pay dividends for long term well-being only if repeated again and again. This presents a challenge because attention to goals can lapse."

This is where self-monitoring comes into play.  Self-monitoring is the intentional and consistent observation of your own behaviour. You need to be conscious and paying attention to what you are doing, otherwise we all find it all too easy to slip back into seeking instant rewards and old habitual behaviours. 

When I work with a smoker I will want them keeping a diary of when and where they smoke and anything that triggers it so we can target these triggers and situations. With a weight loss client, they need to keep a record of what they are eating and when and pay attention to their eating. In fact, research suggests that dieters who consistently monitor their food intake lose more weight than those who don't. You become accountable for your own decisions and have to recognise your own thoughts, feeling and behaviours.

It's also probably the reason that people record their exercise online (e.g. on Strava). You can recognise your own development and progress (and so build self-efficacy), and you self-monitor in a way where others can see what you are doing (and so you are more likely to get out rather than procrastinate) and they will also notice if you aren't up to much and can bring your procrastination to the forefront of your awareness.

And of course any discussion about willpower, self-control and changing the way you think wouldn't be complete without moving into the area that makes up the bulk of my work helping people.  

Mindfulness can help you to develop a non-judgemental awareness of your present experience. Rather than feeling a craving or getting stuck in a loop of procrastination, you can practice mindfulness to develop self-control as it can help to reduce cravings, reduce mind wandering and separate cravings from behaviour. It can also help with reducing any stress or anxiety that may be contributing (e.g. comfort eating, smoking when stressed or feeling anxious and so procrastinating). You may like to check out my Mindfulness Hypnosis Download to start benefiting from this cognitive approach (Mindfulness Hypnosis Download)

And, of course, there is also cognitive therapy (and cognitive behavioural therapy) that can help you to notice your automatic negative thoughts, to challenge these thoughts and then to develop more realistic and accurate thoughts that help you to achieve your goals. In this way you can strengthen willpower and self-control and reduce unhelpful thoughts that lead to old habitual behaviours. This can be really helpful in tackling cigarette cravings, food cravings, overthinking and procrastination. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy has a wealth of research and analysis supporting it. And, as I discussed in an earlier article, hypnosis has been shown to enhance cognitive behavioural therapy and lead to improved outcomes (have a read here: Should all Cognitive Behavioural Therapy include Hypnosis for better results?). Hypnotherapy can certainly help with anxiety, panic attacks, quitting smoking, weight loss and overcoming procrastination amongst many other things too. If you want more personal evidence for this you can browse through the testimonials on this site or check out some of the hypnosis downloads that can really help you.

Increase Willpower and Self-Control 

Many people who try to achieve goals such as weight loss, quitting smoking, exercising more or stopping procrastination try and force themselves to make the positive changes they are seeking. Willpower and self-control are often described as things someone does or doesn't have (and if you think you haven't got any willpower you will likely give up much sooner) whereas the research and evidence shows that we can take steps that support us in taking positive action towards our longer term goals.

Willower and self-control are things that can be enhanced and developed rather than being things you do or don't have. By implementing some of these situational and cognitive strategies you can support your efforts towards being healthier and happier. And once you master some of these strategies you will find that you can apply those strategies and approaches across many areas of your life to create even more momentum.

To your success

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket

 

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References: 

Duckworth, Angela L., Katherine L. Milkman, and David Laibson. "Beyond willpower: Strategies for reducing failures of self-control." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 19, no. 3 (2018): 102-129.

Gustafson, Christopher, Nigina Rakhmatullaeva, Safiya Beckford, Ajai Ammachathram, Alexander Cristobal, and Karsten Koehler. "Exercise and the Timing of Snack Choice: Healthy Snack Choice is Reduced in the Post-Exercise State." Nutrients 10, no. 12 (2018): 1941.