The end of January, start of February is a crucial time for resolution enthusiasm to dribble away or die. Gyms empty by 3rd week in January, diets self-destruct and alcohol free becomes alcohol fuelled. What we need is Willpower.
Willpower, in a nutshell, is the ability to resist short term temptations to meet long term goals
Research for my latest book on Willpower, as well as my own observations as a psychologist, reveal that if you want to set goals or make resolutions, then you need to adopt the 3 Week Rule. This means that a new behaviour takes three weeks to form plus another nine to become a habit. Not long if you’ve been a couch potato all your life.
Phil Howard, an award-winning chef, started running as part of his recovery from a gambling addiction but has ended up running habitually. Now he runs because he feels great and rarely backs out even if when it’s snowing.
Of course, the most predictable part of any resolution is that you will fail, be tempted, will backslide at some point. A back-up plan is needed in advance just in case. We now know that old habits do indeed die hard. They are really sticky things and don’t disappear that easily, especially if they are well established.
Avoiding some situations when you might be tempted, or surrounding yourself with like-minded people or distracting yourself, will all be strategies you can use. Here are some more-
Pause and plan
Pause and plan starts with the realisation that you have a two brain conflict going on. You know you shouldn’t have that glass of wine as you promised yourself but you really really want it. You may be at a business event and finding it tougher than at home to stick to your plan as everyone else is drinking the wine. You need help at this point to ward off a potentially bad decision.
Enter Willpower. The prefrontal cortex jumps in wearing a superman outfit and helps you to make the good, beneficial choice. Pause to allow your thinking brain to kick in then plan. Relax, take a deep breath perhaps move away and think what to do. Slow things down. Order an alcohol-free beer and offer your glass of wine to a friend. Pause and plan offers freedom from the terrorism of your lower brain where old habits lie.
When a habit disappears, it’s called extinction but our old habits after three weeks are waiting in the wings to return if willpower fails. You want to give up chocolate as part of a diet and you are succeeding. However, you are in a meeting at work and in the centre of the table are a bowl of chocolates which everyone is eating. No time to pause and plan, your prefrontal cortex overthrown you are in the midst of an extinction burst when you might not only eat all the remaining chocolates in the dish but also buy the three for two offer on bags of sweets on the way home.
When the familiar cue of chocolate is presented to you and in the dis-inhibiting company of others then it is easy to transgress and then make it an excuse to transgress even further. This is a blast of defiance from old habits stored in your lower brain. It is important to realise that this is a very common part of the extinction process and understand that this isn’t a return to old ways just your brain trying to find a way round your new ‘absence of chocolate behaviour’. To give in at this point will lengthen the habit forming process the next time you try. Your brain now knows you gave in and will produce more cravings designed to undermine you in the future. Time to get over it and get back to the plan.
Forgive yourself and move on
No one is perfect, so expect to backslide occasionally during these first three weeks – and perhaps again in the ensuing nine weeks if you have an extinction burst. Have a plan in place, forgive yourself and move on.
Studies have looked at the effect of self-criticism, that internal “beating yourself up”, on willpower. The long and the short of it is: it doesn’t work. It gets you down and is associated with symptoms of depression. Willpower is never about perfection but about trying and learning.
Research was carried out in 2017 and reported by Psyblog (an online update of psychological research), into the hypothesis that working on your self-esteem was the best way to move on from failure.
One group was asked “Imagine you are talking to yourself about failing by boosting your self- esteem.”
A second group was instructed “Imagine you are talking to yourself about failing from a compassionate and understanding perspective.”
It was the second group who wrote self-compassionately that felt more self-forgiveness, and then achieved more personal improvement. Self- compassion allows us to confront our regrets and view them rationally. So understanding our flaws is better than trying to boost our self-esteem via our positive qualities. This has its place, of course, but not while getting over failure.
Visualisation is a powerful tool and we often use this gift to imagine disasters. Instead visualise success. Recent research has found that visualising the small steps – mini goals- along the way to a major goal has proved to be more successful. If you imagine these steps every day for 3 weeks this becomes second nature and transfers to reality.
Complete the checklist here to help you become failure proof with your Willpower Challenge:
Failure Proof Checklist
- When might I be tempted to give in?
- What can I do to get away from temptation?
- What friend or colleague can I call for support?
- What can I say to myself when I pause and plan?
- If I have an extinction burst, what can I do to get back on track quickly?
- How can I forgive myself for a blip in my Willpower Challenge?
For more information read Willpower by Ros Taylor published by Wiley