When things slow down in the summer, it is a great time to take a look at our habits and routines. Is there anything we want to change? And, if so, how do we go about making that change? I’ve put together two common questions that I’ve answered a lot in my office about willpower and habits. How do we gain mental willpower and how to we create new habits? I hope these questions and answers allow you to take a moment to reexamine your routines for the upcoming year!
Q: It’s so easy to figure out how to train your physical body, but how to do you train your brain? How do you ensure that you can start things and stick to them? I wish there was a science to that too!
A: In their recent book entitled Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, psychologist Roy Baumeister and The New York Times science writer John Tierney explain just how important self-control is: “When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict ‘positive outcomes’ in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control.”
Exercise your Willpower
So, how can you improve your willpower and improve your life? Below I’ve put together a few quick tips:
Start small. Even small, day-to-day acts of self-control such as maintaining good posture can reinforce longer-term self-control in activities that have nothing to do with your posture. Therefore, choose a few small areas that you’d like to work on: writing out full sentences in text messages, eating a healthy breakfast, or brushing your teeth after drinking coffee. Then, flex those willpower muscles!
Sleep well. Just like your arm muscles need sleep to recharge and rest, your willpower needs the same. Therefore, get enough sleep so that you aren’t constantly using your willpower to remain alert during the day and not having any left over for other tasks.
Eat well. Eat lots of slow-burning foods such as whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. If you aren’t resisting the urge to eat, you’ll be more likely to have self-control in other areas.
Imbibe some sugar. This one is a bit tricky if you would like to use your willpower to eat better, but sometimes your willpower can be revived by a quick shot of sugar, just like a regular muscle.
Don’t do too much at once. If you try to pump up your willpower all at once, you just might not be strong enough to continue. Start small and work your way toward bigger goals.
Avoid temptation. This way you won’t have to use up your willpower resisting it. “People with low willpower,” Baumeister says, “use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises.”
Perhaps this all goes back to the wisdom of Pirkei Avos, “Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations.” Let us build that strength and ultimately live happier, more successful lives!
Q: I am a terrible procrastinator – constantly putting off paying my bills, organizing my closets, or even washing my dishes after I cook for shabbos. I know that I shouldn’t put off tomorrow what I can do today, but I just have no idea how to get myself moving. Is there any hope for my procrastination?
A: Procrastination, like any bad habit, is not an easy thing to kick, but it is possible. Bad habits, such as nail biting, compulsive shopping, over-scheduling, or putting yourself down, are something that becomes ingrained in your psyche. As with anything that is part of your daily routine, the process is not easy.
Replace lost needs. For many people, bad habits fill specific needs. For instance, nail biting relieves anxiety or procrastination simulates relaxation. You can’t expect to cut out bad habits completely without feeling any repercussions. Therefore, think about what the bad habit provides you with (anxiety relief, relaxation, feeling loved). Then, figure out a way to replace that need with something that is less destructive. Therefore, if procrastination makes you feel relaxed choose another form of relaxation that is scheduled into your day. And then tell yourself that that there is no procrastination allowed – you have already done your relaxing.
Avoid triggers. Often, bad habits will be prompted by familiar objects or places – otherwise known as “triggers.” These triggers could be a favorite store for shopaholics or getting on the scale for people who constantly put themselves down. The best way to not fall back into bad habits is to avoid those triggers to begin with – so if you procrastinate by talking on the phone, don’t walk around with your cell phone or cordless. Instead, keep all phones upstairs so that you cannot easily access them.
Write it down. Nothing helps you stick to a goal more than writing it down. It is very easy to dismiss thoughts, but not very easy to dismiss written notes to yourself. Therefore, write down the habit you are trying to kick – and how you plan to do it. This reinforces the idea in your mind and doesn’t allow you to shirk your responsibility later when you would like to.
Keep it simple. Don’t make a million little rules that you need to follow in order to kick your bad habit. Instead, come up with one or two simple guidelines. For instance, don’t go to sleep with dishes in the sink or Mondays are bill-paying days. With simple rules, you will be able to follow through on your goals.
30, 90, 365. Behavioral experts believe that there are three benchmarks when trying to gain a new habit or get rid of an old habit. The first thirty days require the most will power and chances are you must constantly remind yourself to stick to your plans. After ninety days, if you are sticking to your goals, the bad habit should be neutralized – you no longer need to actively fight it. After a full year, the bad habit should be kicked, simply a remnant of the past.
Obviously, a year is a very long time to work consistently at something in order to achieve a goal. However, think about how much happier and fuller your life could be without your bad habits slowing you down. What are you waiting for? Start today!
Register now for a Mindsets and ADHD workshop by Dr. Robert Brooks on November 13, 2018. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.