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10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Willpower is essential to the accomplishment of anything worthwhile.” – Brian Tracy

“Just do it.” – Nike

The most important and satisfying things in life usually aren’t the easiest ones.

The good news: In today’s hyper-connected world, we have access to all the information we could want to help us achieve our future goals. We know what foods will make us healthier (would kale or quinoa be as popular without the internet and Dr. Oz? I think not). We can also estimate for ourselves the benefits of starting retirement savings early – and the implications for the lifestyles of our future selves (that boat at 65 means fewer vacations in your 20’s).

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We almost always know what we should do thanks to endless knowledge at our fingertips. But actually doing it is an entirely different kind of challenge. Most of us can relate to that feeling of inertia at the start of a big project, or the struggle to consistently make good, long-term choices for our health, or saving for the future. This mental tug-of-war we experience has evolutionary roots. While knowing this might bring comfort, it doesn’t help solve the problem at hand:

How can we flex our willpower to become better, faster, smarter, and stronger?

The bad news: you can’t Google your way out of this one.

Or can you? A fascinating body of research (much of which you can turn up online through popular press and academic articles) sheds light on how to hack your willpower for better, easier results in all areas of your life. The Willpower Instinct, a great book by Stanford prof Kelly McGonigal, provides a deep dive into these and more topics for anyone keenly interested.

Here’s the short version: we can make the most of our willpower through two types of hacks. First, there are ways to turbo boost your willpower. Second, there are ways to hack the system so you make the best use of whatever (sometimes infinitely modest) willpower you have.

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The following 10 tips draw on both of these toolkits.

1. Slow the heck down.

Most regrettable decisions (the splurge at the mall, the procrastination on the project, the snacks in the break room) happen when one part of our brain effectively hijacks the other. We go into automatic pilot (and unfortunately the pilot in question has a penchant for shoes, Facebook and cookies!). Researchers suggest that we can override this system by charging up the other. That is, slow down and focus on the moment at hand. Think about your breathing. Bring yourself back to this moment in time, feel the compulsion but don’t act on it yet. Try telling yourself, “If this feeling is still just as uncomfortable in 10 minutes, I’ll act on it.” Take a little time to be mindful – then make your decision.

2. Dream of ‘done.’

Imagine yourself handing in the big project, soaking up the appreciation from your colleagues or boss. Or crossing the finish line for the half-marathon you’ve always wanted to run. The rush, the aliveness, the wind on your face, the medal …

That’s a lot more fun and motivating to think about than how much work it is to get out of bed for your long, Sunday morning run!

Re-orient your brain by summoning more motivating feelings than just “not running this morning is more enjoyable than running this morning.” If your goals are meaningful, this will help.

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3. Make your toughest choices first.

Scientists have found that willpower is like a full bathtub that’s drained throughout the day. So, why not start your toughest challenges when you have a full reserve? Get that project started or fit that workout in before you even check your email or have breakfast. Bonus: the high you’ll get from crossing off your hardest ‘to-do’ will help you sail through the rest of your day.

4. Progress = commitment, not a license to backslide.

A lot of times people will ‘cheat’ right after taking positive steps towards their goals. (A common version of this trap is, “I worked out three days in a row, so I deserve this cookie.”) Most of us can relate to this thinking – but it’s totally irrational! We’ll often trick ourselves into setbacks because we think we deserve them, even if we don’t really want them and deep down we know they’ll work against us in the long-run.

How can you counteract this effect? Research finds that if you use your positive streak to recommit (“If I worked out three days this week, I must be really committed to my health and fitness goal!”) rather than an excuse for wiggle room, we don’t take the same cheat options. Cool, right?

5. Meditate.

Meditation is an expressway to better willpower. Bringing your attention to your breathing for 15 minutes, or even five, flexes your willpower muscles by applying discipline to your thinking. It does this by working two mental ‘muscle groups’: first, the set of muscles that notice when your attention is drifting, and second, the set of muscles that bring you back to your task at hand. Over time, even small amounts of meditation will help you build the discipline to easily do what was once hard – like pushing through a long stretch at work.

6. Set mini-goals.

Which seems more doable: committing to three 20 minute runs this week or a half-marathon? Mini-goals are brilliant because they’re easier to achieve and boost your commitment to continuing. When we size them up, we see them as achievable rather than daunting. Each time you succeed at one, it boosts your sense of efficacy and personal integrity: not only are you capable of doing what you set out to do, but you followed through on it. Nice.

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The beauty of mini-goals is that over time, mini-goals – and the momentum you’ve built by doing them – can quickly turn into super-goals. So that half marathon might be more likely to happen, and sooner and more easily than you think!

7. Eat.

Low blood sugar decreases your ability to make tough decisions. If you’re running on empty physically, you’ll also be running on empty mentally. (Yes, this one’s somewhat ironic if your goal involves changing food patterns – but even so, letting your blood sugar drop too far will only sabotage you over time.)

8. Sleep.

Research shows people who don’t get enough sleep have a tough time exercising their willpower. Sleep is critical for a healthy brain – along with just about everything else. So to optimize your willpower muscle, make sure you’re catching your zzz’s.

9. Nix the self-sabotage.

Making yourself feel bad hurts, rather than helps, your willpower efforts. Researchers have found that compassion is a far better strategy than tough love – telling yourself “It’s OK, everyone has setbacks sometimes,” will help you bounce back more quickly than negative self-talk.

10. Take the first hard step.

As a new behavior becomes a habit, it is more natural. You have to use less and less willpower to ‘make it so.’ When you’re starting a new pattern that feels hard, remind yourself that the first steps are truly the hardest. It will probably never feel harder than it does in those first few choices. In the case of repeated behaviors, like exercise or saving money, it takes weeks for new habits to take hold. By that point, the habit will be so ingrained, you’d have to try hard not to do it.

Featured photo credit: GLady via pixabay.com

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Last Updated on June 18, 2019

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Making Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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