Much like a car can only go so far on a tank of gas, research suggests that willpower and motivation—the fuel that powers your drive to lose weight, get back in shape, or otherwise stay out of trouble—is a limited resource. You start each day with only so much. It can be squandered quickly or, if you learn a few tricks, it can be conserved and even refreshed.
“Willpower may be finite for the day, but it’s a self-perpetuating renewable resource,” says Susan Rose, a Los Angeles productivity coach.
Here’s how to design your day in order to make sure you stay fit, keep your job, never gain weight, and avoid bringing anyone named Fifi LaRue home to meet mom.
When you buy yourself an extra 10 minutes (which always feels like 30 seconds anyway), you’re setting a precedent for the day—that any goal can be compromised. “As soon as you hit snooze, you’re renegotiating a commitment with yourself,” says Natalie Houston, a personal productivity coach in (city/state). So don’t do it. Alarm goes off. You get up.
When it comes to motivation, your brain is wired a bit backwards. It prioritizes avoiding defeat over achieving success. Committing to starting the day with exercise turns that thinking around. By leading off with a workout – however brief – you’re adjusting your mind to view inaction as defeat.
“There’s tons of research on loss aversion, but the gist of it is pretty simple,” explains Kyle Kirchhoff, co-founder of Spar, a mobile app that builds healthy habits by debiting bank accounts for missed challenges. “Losing sucks, and people will work hard to avoid it.”
Building willpower doesn’t just help with building abs. It can be used to improve relationships, too, says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a relationship and family therapist in (city/state). Say your partner is always complaining she’s under-appreciated. So instead of making some vague commitment to tell her she is, set a specific 12-hour period to do so. Kiss her goodbye, text her during the day, and take her out for dinner at night. Then later in the week or even next, set yourself another 12-hour goal to do the same. Eventually, says Hokemeyer, “you’ll see significant changes in your behavior [and hers].” Works with kids, co-workers, bosses … anyone.
There is research showing that if you have a little bit of your guilty pleasure in the morning for breakfast (chocolate in particular) you’ll be less likely to go hog wild on it during the day. It’s a willpower trick.
Stop rehearsing your argument for a promotion/raise in the shower or during your commute to work and make this the day you finally ask for one. Visualization is a powerful tool, but doing it for too long how long is too long? without taking action can sabotage your goals. “Research shows that the more people fantasize and daydream about a desired future, the less successful they are [at realizing it],” says Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New York University. Visualization takes energy, which over time can actually sap your willpower to act on your dreams. Last line correct?
Essentially what you’re doing is comparing yourself to others and that can get depressing when you’re standing in line at Chipotle wondering if you’re the only person on earth not having an organic kale salad for lunch. “Reduce external pressure to have better self-control,” says Liad Uziel, Ph.D., of the department of psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
This trick works in another way, too. Thinking you’re low in self-control can become self-fulfilling. A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that, regardless of whether subjects’ baseline level of willpower was low or high, when it came to completing a task that required self control, those who wished for more motivation were less able to complete the activity.
Ask yourself why 3 to 5 times
Repeatedly doing this will help you drill down to the core reason you want to make a behavior change, says Houston. And that core reason will be the most motivational – guaranteed. Here’s an example: Let’s say you have a sweet tooth and are trying to muster the willpower to cut down on sugar.
Why? #1: To avoid diabetes
Why? #2: To lose weight
Why? #3: To look fitter
Why? #4: To get a date with Svetlana in HR
See how that works? By repeatedly asking yourself “why?” you progress from the very general to the very specific and, therefore, get to the most inspirational. All of a sudden, avoiding the vending machine mid-afternoon becomes a whole lot easier, because you’re directly associating it with your happiness.
Instead of waiting until you arrive at the brewpub after work and risking making a poor choice, “pre-order” mentally on the drive over. For example, if your goal is to reduce calories from alcohol, tell yourself, “I will order a lighter session beer instead of my usual imperial IPA.” Likewise, pre-commit to getting the chicken romaine salad instead of the chicken fried steak.
“Things that are normally hard to deal with can become surprisingly easy if you automate the decision-making through pre-programming,” says Martin Ford Ph.D., a professor of education at George Mason University, who specializes in motivation and self-regulation.
Lay out your clothes for the next day the night before. Even better, pre-prep your breakfast and lunch, too. “Remove uncertainty about what you might do,” suggests Ford. Decision-making saps willpower, and the longer you spend agonizing about a decision—even a seemingly inconsequential one—the more you wear down those stores. Bonus: You’ll cut your risk of walking into work with mismatched socks and a box of cereal.
At the end of the day, most guys beat themselves up over their failures. You skipped a workout. You splurged at lunch. Instead, try acknowledging those times when you had the willpower to resist temptation, however small. It’s a simple trick for staying positive, maintaining momentum, and getting off to a strong start the following day.
“The brain has a natural bias to pay more attention to the negative or painful, because it wants to protect you from those things,” says Houston. “Focusing on three successes at the end of the day primes your brain for achieving success again.”
The advice to get 8 hours of sleep nightly is so ubiquitous it’s actually sleep inducing. But that’s because there’s lots of great research supporting it. For example, you’re more likely to make regrettable food choices after a night of abbreviated sleep. A recent study in the journal Sleep found that, like the active ingredient in marijuana, sleep loss raises the body’s endocannabinoid levels, so you wake up with the equivalent of the munchies. As anyone who went to a liberal arts college knows, you lose that battle nine times out of 10.
“Respect your body’s need for deep, sustained sleep,” says Ford. “It’s a rejuvenating source of willpower, not a waste of time.”
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