If you need a bit of a push to turn your New Year intentions into action, all it takes is a fresh perspective on willpower, as Helen Foster explains…
How are your New Year’s resolutions going, now we’re well into February? If you decided that 2018 is going to be the springboard for a few changes in life, there’s important news. It turns out that thing called willpower you think you need in order to resist temptation or do something you might not feel like doing can be developed simply by tweaking how you think. Welcome to your year of the ‘I Can Do It’ attitude and all the success it will bring.
‘I’ve got no willpower’ used to be my mantra in life. I used it as an excuse for all sorts of things: why I’m always a little bit heavier than I want to be; the reason I always say yes to a night out rather than go to the gym; and why I’ll always have the chips not the side salad! In my mind, willpower (or my lack thereof) was this naughty little sprite that sat on my shoulder controlling my behaviour – and I could do nothing about it.
Interestingly, science seems to back this up. For many years, researchers were also saying that the strength of our self-discipline was something we’re born with and the amount we have to draw upon is finite. They also felt it was like a muscle, which, used too often throughout the day, became tired – cue my excuse for anything I didn’t want to do past 6pm! Now, however, newer evidence seems to be turning this long-held belief on its head.
The Power To Change
Recent studies have found that not only is willpower a renewable resource but that simply presenting people with this fact – and the evidence to prove it – meant they could and would immediately change the way they acted and improve their chances of success. When people stop thinking of willpower as a nebulous force controlling them, but rather something they have the ability to influence, they persevere for longer at a task, have more belief in their ability to achieve things and are actually more likely to succeed.
My epiphany along these lines came when doing groundwork for a book I wrote on giving up alcohol for a month – just as you might be doing for ‘Dry January’. So many people thought I couldn’t abstain even for 30 days, yet I was determined to prove them wrong. Once I started telling myself that, I realised willpower and determination were actually the same force but that one of those words felt much more empowering. I knew I could be determined – I’ve run marathons and I meet deadlines every day for work. If I just made myself determined to stick to this particular goal, I could do it. That was my defining can-do moment and I’ve never since used the word willpower.
So, you might be reading this and wondering how you get to your determination? It could be as easy as using the following four steps from the latest thinking – starting, as I did, with changing your language.
Step One: Find The Right Words
The language you use when making a change is very important in helping you achieve that change. People who said they ‘didn’t want’ to do something tempting such as eat a cake were eight times more likely to succeed than those who said they ‘couldn’t’ do that same thing, according to a study by the University of Houston. Using the words ‘don’t want’ told their brains this was a choice they were actively making, and the brain helps reinforce ideas it thinks will make you happy. What that meant was that instead of keeping them fixated on the cake they couldn’t have, it stopped them thinking about the cake, taking willpower out of the equation.
‘When you choose to make a change, the words you use to talk about it can mean either you come at it from a perspective of power or one of defeat; successful people always choose a position of power,’ says motivation coach Nisha Kuanda. ‘Words can empower you and choosing the right ones is an art.’
How To Do It
There are no words that work for everyone – choose the right ones for you. ‘It’s important to feel a strong emotional connection to the words you use; it ought to feel as if they motivate you as you say them,’ says Nisha. ‘The best words will make you feel as if you’re the driver in your own life, not a passenger.’ As we said, there’s no right or wrong here – but words you might consider eliminating include: should, must, need, might, willpower, if and luck, which all produce an element of doubt. Words to consider using instead include want, will, determined, committed, resolved and when, which convey a sense of power.
If you still harbour an inkling of doubt though, there’s another intriguing word switch to consider. Avoid using ‘I’ to talk about what you’re trying to do. Recent research has shown that if self-belief is low, using the word ‘you’ can be far more powerful. The reason, say the researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, is that speaking about yourself in the second person makes you feel as if you’re being encouraged by someone else.
So if, for example, you’re struggling on the last five minutes of your Couch to 5k plan, instead of saying ‘I can do this’ to yourself, say ‘You can do this’. If it feels right, it’ll create magic.
Step Two: Embrace The ‘Not Yet’ Idea
When most of us set a goal, there are two possible outcomes: you succeed or you fail. However, new research on change at Stanford University in the US has generated the inspiring idea of a third option: you’re just not there yet.
It came about as part of a study into the mindset of achievers. Experts discovered that people who saw every step taken toward a goal as a positive, even steps that fail, were more likely to keep plugging away and eventually succeed. Embracing the idea that you never fail at a task, you just haven’t yet reached your goal, is one way of creating this way of thinking.
And it’s a very successful one. When schools adopted this idea by not using ‘failed’ grades and instead using ‘not yet’, pass marks on the pupils’ next tests increased exponentially. They didn’t see failing as the end – they just weren’t yet at the point where they could pass. ‘I love this idea,’ says Nisha.
‘One result of not seeing success straight away is that you might give up or self-sabotage what you’re trying to do, which can reaffirm the idea that you’re a failure. Creating a “not yet” space gives you the opportunity to pause, reflect and make gentle tweaks to your strategy that help make it more likely you’ll achieve your goal.’
How To Do It
As you progress on your journey, take time to reflect on, and even jot down, what’s working – and, just as importantly, look at what’s not. Remember, this isn’t failure, it’s just a sign you’ve not got things right yet. Reassess your plan and you will get there.
Step 3: Know You Can Do It
Self-efficacy is the phrase psychologists use to describe the confidence in your ability to do something. When self-efficacy is high, success is more likely because when you believe you can do something, you tend to see obstacles as mere hurdles to hop over rather than absolute barriers. High self-belief also goes hand in hand with greater effort; for example, you’ll be more inclined to cook a healthy meal or spend time on your fledgling business when you arrive home tired if you believe you’re going to succeed as opposed to if you have doubts
How To Do It
‘The most important thing I tell my clients about self-efficacy is that you don’t have to believe absolutely you can do something for it to work. Simply scoring yourself seven out of ten for confidence is enough to make things happen,’ says health coach Lizi Jackson-Barrett.
So, ask yourself now, out of ten, how much do you believe you can succeed at what you want to do, whether it’s slimming down for summer, being able to run 5k or creating new healthy eating habits? If the answer is more than seven, that’s awesome – get started now! ‘If, however, you’re scoring less than this, think of it as climbing a ladder,’ says Lizi. ‘Every step takes you nearer the top, so ask yourself what could be the simplest thing you could do to get you one step closer to a seven? Then take that step. Ask again and again until you reach that seven or more.’
Step 4: See Your Goal As Exciting
How we think about our ability to stick to a plan and stay motivated actually differs between cultures. In India, for example, completing a task that uses self-control and discipline is seen as rewarding and energising, rather than draining and depleting. As such, when researchers at the National University of Singapore looked at how long people spent on a task, those with this ‘effort is energising’ mentality were more likely to see things through.
How To Do It
Again, changing your language can help create this excitement. Can you see how using the phrase ‘When I start my business’ might create more energy than ‘If I start my business’? As well as that, find the reason behind why you want to achieve your goal and focus on it every single day – the why is so crucial as it provides the motivation to keep going. ‘It helps you establish why your goal is something you really want to achieve, and that increases your chances of finding the resolve and resources you need to achieve it,’ says Lizi. Set yourself clear, manageable steps and outcomes to get yourself energised and constantly moving forward.
There you have it, the four steps you need to take to create your new can-do mentality. But before you get started, we just want to point out you’re already closer to your goal than ever. Remember we said that arming people with the facts about willpower made them immediately more likely to develop that ‘I can do it!’ attitude? Well, all the researchers had to do to achieve this amazing result was to get people to read a short article explaining how willpower was completely under their control – just like this one! So, now you don’t just think you can… you know you can!