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Turns out that for years, we've been going about our resolutions all wrong. That's because we didn't really understand what willpower is. It's not a magical force we summon up only when we're trying to diet or kick our butts into workout mode. Instead, willpower is something we call on throughout the day, every day, to help us decide between the black pants and the blue ones, for instance, or to try to tune out our cubicle mate's phone conversation so we can get our work done. "Any act that requires self-control requires willpower," explains Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and a coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
Unfortunately we have only a certain amount of willpower in any 24-hour period, and it tends to be strongest at the beginning of the day. "Willpower depends on your body's energy supply, which generally peaks in the morning," Baumeister says. The more we use it, the weaker it gets.
And, boy, do we put willpower through its paces: We spend three hours a day struggling to resist temptations like eating, surfing the Web, and spending money, according to a new study by Baumeister. That process leaves us physically and emotionally drained, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Willpower Instinct. "The brain uses more energy to curb your impulses than it does to perform other mental tasks," she explains.
The good news is that you can conserve your willpower and use it to reach your goals, not squander it on the small stuff. Here are six smart techniques for doing just that.Find your focus.
Blaring TVs. People talking. E-mail and text alerts. We live and work in really noisy environments, which makes it hard to concentrate. And the more we try to tune out the cacophony, the more willpower we use up. The simple solution: Eliminate distractions rather than trying to ignore them, McGonigal says. Help yourself focus at work by using earplugs (or closing your office door if you have one), turning off your cell phone ringer, and silencing e-mail notifications. And don't listen to your iPod on the job. A 2011 study found that subjects who were asked to memorize information while listening to music scored worse on a test than those who had memorized in silence. "A better strategy is to use music to rev up your mood, energy, and productivity and then switch it off," McGonigal says.Eat for energy.
The more often you consume good-for-you food, the more willpower you'll have. Studies show that people whose blood sugar (aka glucose) is elevated to a healthy level, as it is after regular meals, have more self-control and can more easily resist junk food. "When your blood sugar is low, it's harder to control your impulses," McGonigal says. Need an immediate willpower boost? "Some baby carrots or a handful of raisins will do the trick," she says. These foods are naturally high in sugar and will raise your glucose supply almost instantly, helping fuel your brain. Even better, to keep yourself willpowered all day, eat healthy meals or snacks every four hours. Choose foods that have a combo of protein, fiber, and complex carbs, like a salad with tofu, nuts, spinach, and tomatoes, or Greek yogurt with fruit.Plan ahead.
Cut down on the number of decisions you have to make every day and your willpower muscle will automatically get stronger. "Studies show that after you reach a decision, your self-control is worse, and after you exert self-control, you get worse at making decisions," Baumeister says. So get to work right now at reducing the number of choices you have to make in any 24-hour period. On Sunday, plan your workouts for the week and put them in the calendar on your phone. Every few months, pull together five to 10 outfits for work so you don't start off each day agonizing over what to wear.
"Debating whether or not to work out takes a lot of mental energy," says Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. "But when it happens routinely, like taking a Spinning class every Tuesday and Thursday, and you don't have to think about it, it's not so taxing."
To start a new exercise habit, pick a time when you'll be able to work out consistently, like first thing in the morning. "Studies show that people who exercise regularly do it at the same hour every time," Duhigg says.
Also, build get-moving prompts into your day. If you go for a run right after waking up, "put your workout clothes near your bed, where you'll see them first thing," Duhigg suggests. Finally, give yourself a little reward every time you finish a workout. "Make sure it's something you genuinely enjoy," Duhigg says. That will trick your brain into associating the rush of pleasure that comes from a treat, like a coffee after your morning run, with exercise.Stress less.
Nothing weakens your resolve or zaps your initiative like stress. "Researchers are just learning how stress is tied to self-control," Baumeister says. "Our best guess is that both things require the same amount of mental energy." So once you become stressed, your willpower goes right out the window.
To calm down and replenish your energy, go for a walk. "When stress hits, removing yourself from the situation even briefly helps," says Suzanne Steinbaum, an attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and the author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum's Heart Book. "By changing your environment, you help change your perception and recharge your batteries." If possible, go outside, she advises. Fresh air will help you relax and get back on track for success.Follow your friends.
News flash: You're still susceptible to peer pressure. "We have evolved to unconsciously imitate those around us," says James Fowler, PhD, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego, and a coauthor of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.
Research found that if the person sitting next to us eats a lot, we're more likely to overindulge as well. Even pals who live hundreds of miles away can affect our habits. "Friends share information about behavior on Facebook and Twitter," Fowler notes. Similarly, our buds can get us excited about exercise. "If your friend takes up running and says, 'Hey! I've got more energy,' it may encourage you to start, too," Fowler says.
Schedule workouts and healthy meals with your fit pals on a regular basis. Making the commitment to get and stay in shape together will help build your willpower and keep you motivated to reach the finish line.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2013.