A few years back I entered a 6-mile race called the Jingle Bell Run with some of my fellow FBI agents. Fueled by willpower, I tried desperately to keep up with them, but within the first few yards, they pulled away and left me behind.
And then, as we entered the last mile, a woman pushing a stroller sailed past me. The child sitting in the stroller weighed about 40 pounds—to add insult to injury.
I wish I could tell you this was a joke, but it wasn’t. It made me feel both defeated and humiliated. I watched as the woman’s back quickly disappeared into the crowd as well. By now, I was limping along with runners from the Shady Rest Retirement Community.
I thought about dropping out of the race altogether, but I willed myself to keep moving ahead even though I was gasping for breath and barely able to move.
The capacity to say “no” to the call of temptation and desire to quit is called willpower. It is the ability to find the energy, motivation, and enthusiasm to keep going even when you’re tired, anxious, and looking for a way out.
Here are 6 ways you can use willpower to get what you want in life:
1. Keep Your Eye On The Big Picture
There’s a good chance that you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are good that you failed because it takes more than a flimsy commitment to lose fifty pounds or run five miles before breakfast. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those goals, but unless your heart is truly into it, and it is important to you, it’s just another task in an already packed day.
Make sure your goals and priorities are clear in your mind. You must be able to make the choice that matters when you run into difficulties and feel like giving up. Willpower takes energy because you must use mental toughness to control your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Dump the trivia because meaningless tasks do not activate willpower.
How To Make It Work For You: Connect to your why. If you’re frustrated because you don’t have the self-control to change your behavior, you’ll start to feel bad about yourself. If we don’t like who we are and hate the way we can’t stick with a behavior, before too long we find ourselves on the treadmill of shame. Shame is a type of self-hate and creates an unhealthy and unbearable tension within ourselves.
You must be able to remind yourself WHY it’s important for you to do something. When you have a purpose and are engaged in activities that are freighted with both value and meaning, you have the beginning of what it takes to commit to your goal.
2. Pare Down Decisions
School uniforms are popular for a reason: they reduce the number of choices students have to make every morning. When Barak Obama was President, he only wore blue or gray suits. He told Vanity Fair that he didn’t want to make decisions about what to wear because he had so many other decisions to make.
How To Make It Work For You: Create rituals because they allow you to forge a connection between your mind and body. That can be important when you need to funnel your energy into the challenge in front of you. Fewer decisions allow you to find the energy, motivation, and stamina to keep going even when you’re tired or anxious.
3. Train Your Brain
You can make the willpower center of your brain denser and better connected by meditating every day. Neuroscientists have found that meditation leads to better focus and self-control after just 3 hours of practice. MRI scans show increased neural connections in brain regions responsible for impulse control.
How To Make It Work For You: Spend time in meditation, even when you have trouble controlling your thoughts. Don’t worry if you think you are bad at it. The act of constantly pushing away intrusive thoughts is precisely what trains the brain and strengthens willpower.
4. Defer Gratification
Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of compliance. So, if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to ignore doing easier things in favor of doing something harder.
How To Make It Work For You: Remember that willpower is the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
5. Be Positive
When we choose to pull out the crap from our situation and focus on the positive, we increase our willpower to accomplish a task. When confronted with an obstacle or uncertainty, it’s hard not to become fixated on what is not going right. If we allow negativity to gain an upper hand, we find ourselves down a rabbit hole that only gets darker the further we go.
Studies have shown that if we raise our expectations of success, we’re better able to reframe our situation and find ways to overcome the temptations or obstacles that might pop up along the way. As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, by all means, keep going.”
How To Make It Work For You: Now is not the time to stop. Your ability to overcome an obstacle depends upon how likely you think you’ll be able to overcome it. That means you need to learn how to hunt the positive because there will be times in your life when it’ll be hard to find.
6. Change Your Mindset
People who think that willpower is limited are always on the lookout for signs of fatigue. But people who believe that willpower is not limited only dig deeper and find more resources.
Recent findings by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck fly in the face of what has been preached about willpower for years—that willpower is limited and that we need constant glucose boosts throughout the day.
If we have a growth mindset, we will work harder and dig deeper to find the willpower we need to overcome obstacles or reach our goals. According to Walton and Dweck, willpower can indeed be quite limited—but only if you believe it is. When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted.
But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing—when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one—then people successfully exert more willpower.
How To Make It Work For You: Every obstacle you work through makes the achievement that much more valuable. Giving up is often the easiest option in today’s world, but it’s important to think about how that choice may affect your life ten years from now. Don’t live a life of regrets.