Do you look forward to the “season of peace” every year only to be reminded that the anticipation, excitement and joy of the holidays are often rivaled only by the stress, exhaustion and discontent of the holidays? If you are trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle or achieve some life goals, the holiday season can be fraught with land mines. If you find yourself, year after year, falling off the health and fitness wagon during the winter months and justifying it with the craziness of the season, you are not alone. Motivation and willpower are two primary factors that impact greatly how successfully we navigate these land mines. By learning to harness them both, you can come through the holiday season with zest, still wearing the same jeans you started out in and gain access to the inner peace, joy and gratitude this season of giving inherently offers.
Motivation is defined as the reason or reasons we have for acting in a certain way. It refers to your general desire or willingness to do something. The stronger and more accessible this reason is to your conscious mind, the stronger your motivation will be.
Motivation cannot be bestowed up on you. It is personal. We are motivated either by love or by fear. We are either motivated to achieve great fulfillment, enjoyment and happiness or we are motivated to avoid fear, pain, and disappointment. Which form of motivation is more powerful? When motivated by fear, we tend to draw back, shut down and hide out. When motivated by love, we tend to reach ever outward, are drawn forward and are open to all the possibilities life has to offer. As we head into December, consider how you can stay consistently present to your long-term goal so that you are motivated by what is drawing you forward.
- Have a well-defined, clearly articulated goal. Revisit your goal as you prepare for the holidays. Make sure that it contains both an intention and a measureable result and is the result of your own values and interests.
- Write down your goal. Share it with well-chosen people who will support you.
- Create visual images. Look to role models and use descriptive words to paint a picture for yourself that evokes a positive emotional response.
OK. Let’s say you’ve done your goal setting and are feeling really motivated. Is motivation enough? We’ve all been there. You’re excited, full of energy and committed to doing what ever it takes to make your desires come to fruition. Your goal is clear in your mind and you are able to make many little decisions during the day to forego immediate gratification in the interest of your goal. Your energy bank account is full. You are unstoppable. You have boundless energy, the willingness to sacrifice and you fully intend to follow through. You live with gusto for several days or several weeks or even several months.
And then it happens. You start to waver a bit. The stress of the season begins to wear on you. You get tired. Maybe you get a little discouraged. You start to sneak in a little sugar and some carbs. Maybe you miss some sleep. Then you start to beat up on yourself. You sabotage yourself with critical self-talk. Your energy bank account is becoming depleted. You don’t seem to care as much any more about your long-term goal. The couch, the TV, Facebook, a good book, doing laundry- almost anything seems easier and more appealing than keeping your commitment to your goal. Why does this happen? Why is it so hard to stay motivated even when your goal is clearly present in your mind?
Willpower is defined as the strength of will (volition) to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans. Neuroscience has more recently begun to help us understand the complex way in which our brains respond to temptation and what it takes for us to successfully exercise choice. Tony Schwartz, a well-known psychologist and author, writes, “Energy is the fuel for self-control. We each have one reservoir of energy to get things done. Each act that requires self-control progressively depletes this energy reservoir, whether it’s when you use it to resist a piece of cake, focus single-mindedly on a difficult problem, or stay calm when you feel provoked.”
For years we have assumed willpower is a function of our rational mind and that a reduction in willpower is due to an inherent weakness and lack of control. We tend to think of ourselves as essentially rational creatures. The reality is that, though we can use our rational minds to serve our wishes, we are only partly rational. Biochemistry also plays an important role in our ability to employ sustained willpower. Willpower is a mind-body response, not a virtue! When certain chemicals are released in the body (like dopamine), they can trigger strong cravings. During these times, we are more likely to behave in ways that fulfill our desire for immediate gratification than we are to behave in ways that support our long-term goals. This is one reason why bad habits are so easy to form and good ones are more difficult to create and sustain. It also helps explain why, in general, we don’t take better care of ourselves and make smarter lifestyle choices.
Three books have been published on this subject recently: Willpower, The Willpower Instinct, and The Power of Habit. Each of these books outlines the challenges we experience in exercising self-control. The authors of these books all seem to agree that willpower is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise, just like biceps. They conclude that the more conscious willpower we have to exert each day, the less energy we have left over to resist our brain’s primitive inclination toward instant gratification. We are faced with an ever- increasing number of choices to make every day. We have to decide what to buy, what to eat, which emails to return, who to call, which tasks to do, which books to read, what shows to watch and the list goes on. During the holidays, these choices are magnified by the simple fact that we are presented with a higher density of shopping, sweets, alcohol, tempting food, parties and occasions for stress than we generally set up our regular lives to accommodate.
At any given moment, there is an internal checks and balances system inside you- an energy bank. When your energy bank is full, heading to the gym, going for a walk or cooking a healthy meal won’t cost you that much because you have energy to burn and the benefit, in that moment, out weighs the cost. You will be able to go out and get it done almost without thinking about it. On the other hand, when your energy bank starts to become depleted, working out, resisting those Christmas cookies or sticking with whatever activity you’ve committed to will cost you more compared to what you have in reserve. The internal cost/benefit struggle will become more intense. This means that during times of depletion, you have reduced willpower and will lose motivation even to perform the tasks you’re the most passionate about. So how do you get a handle on this dynamic and build sustainable routines around things that are the most important to you? Here are some tips for keeping your energy bank full so that you can build your willpower muscle and stay motivated over time.
- Slow Down. Speed is the enemy of reflection. When we slow down, we can begin to notice not only what is going on in our minds, but also what is going on in our bodies. Slowing down will allow you to become mindful and intentional so that you can stay ahead of your energy requirements.
- Eat strategically. Eating five to six small meals a day provides us with regular doses of glucose, which is the body’s primary source of energy. Lean proteins paired with complex carbohydrates provide a more sustaining source of energy than sugars and simple carbohydrates.
- Create healthy sleep patterns. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night and allow yourself a nap whenever possible. Sleep debt is the biggest culprit in energy depletion.
- Get some aerobic exercise daily. This does not mean you have to go to the gym or run a half marathon every day. Take the stairs, park as far away from the store entrance as you can, get down on the floor and play with your kids or wrestle your dog. Aerobic activity builds cardiovascular capacity and causes our bodies to release endorphins. These help us sustain a steady level of physical and energy and a positive mood.
- Use your energy strategically. Do tasks that require the most energy or self-control first. Using energy at the right times allows you to spend less of it. This leaves more in your reservoir to exercise self-control later on in the day. For example, I encourage my clients to do their most challenging work in the mornings when their energy reserves are highest.
- Give yourself the grace of self-acceptance. Plan to “fall off the wagon” a few times. Intentionally allow yourself that shortbread or watch an old holiday rerun instead of going to the gym. Think of these as opportunities to rest your willpower muscle. Falling off the wagon happens and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it- just make it by design rather than by happenstance.
The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney