Willpower is something that we tend to believe is a zero sum game. Some people are blessed with endless reserves of willpower and others just aren’t. This idea might comfort those of us who consider ourselves in the latter category. But, it is a dangerous belief to maintain. Willpower is critical to the success of our careers, relationships, and health. We can all learn how to improve this critical skill that produces benefits in all areas of our life.
Willpower is described in the research literature as self-discipline, self-control, or executive functioning. It refers to the ability to work towards a specific goal in spite of momentary alternatives that may seem more attractive. Self-discipline is more important than IQ in determining students’ final grades . In fact, being goal directed is one of the best predictors of major life success.
Setting goals and remaining focused long enough to achieve those goals is important for career success. Surprisingly, self-discipline shapes romantic relationships as well. A study revealed that people with low levels of self-control were more likely to select mates with high levels of self-control. It seems as if they are using relationships to compensate for limited self-control. Yet this type of romantic pairing puts extreme pressure and stress on the relationship. This is type of imbalance occurs in most codependent relationships. This is where one person assumes responsibility for the wellbeing of the other. These relationships generate high amounts of resentment and conflict. Over time, they weaken the functioning of both individuals as well as the relationship.
We can see that self-discipline is not an insignificant part of our lives. It influences our career, relationships, and health outcomes. Our ability to set and achieve our goals ultimately shapes our success and happiness in life. Now that we understand why willpower is important, let’s begin to describe what it is. More importantly, how we can increase it in our lives?
Research suggests that there is a strong biological component to will power. Specifically, willpower seems to be correlated with glucose levels in our bodies. When our glucose levels drop below the optimal range, our willpower weakens.
Glucose is the energy source that drives our willpower. Like other sources of energy, our supply of willpower is limited. We have our greatest amount of this energy in the morning which depletes as we go through the day. Every exercise of self-discipline, whether big or small, decreases the amount of energy available for the remaining activities.
In a laboratory experiment , researchers found that self-control activities reduced blood glucose levels. Researchers instructed participants to focus attention, regulate emotions, or suppress a thought. Although we may not think of these activities as hard work, they do require some level of self-control. Therefor they lower our energy reserves. This explains why you may feel tired after you’ve been concentrating. Or why you may desire a sugary snack after exercising restraint in a difficult conversation. In each of these situations, you are drawing upon your energy reserves.
In the same laboratory study, people who exercised self-control in the first phase of the research performed poorly in the second self-control task. Much like a withdrawal from your bank account, exercising self-control reduces your remaining balance. Each day is filled with many tasks requiring self-control. Thus, your ability to remain focused and disciplined on your goals decreases as you move through the day.
It’s no wonder you are unable to work out at the end of the day or that it takes you twice as long to read that report. There’s a reason why you blow up at your kids and spouse when you come home from work. You have depleted your self-discipline reserves. You literally do not have the energy to follow through on your goals.
Lack of follow through on your goals doesn’t mean that you’re hopelessly lazy. It also doesn’t mean that you’re really not invested in accomplishing your goal. Once you understand the science of willpower, you can better manage your energy reserves, increase your self-discipline, and improve your goal attainment.
Research reveals that increasing our levels of monitoring increases our success in self control. In a study college students were asked to perform one of three monitoring tasks: watch their posture, check their emotions, or track their food intake. Regardless of the tasks, the act of monitoring improved their ability to do another unrelated self-control task. All three monitoring groups performed better than the students without any monitoring activity. Thus, the act of monitoring itself seems to strengthen your self-discipline muscle.
Pick a goal and start monitoring your behavior related to that goal. Monitoring your behavior will improve your success rate. But the even better news is that it will also improve your success at all your other goals! You are actually increasing your capacity for self-discipline through any type of goal monitoring. As you strengthen this muscle, it will be able to work better for you in all areas of your life.
Taking a short 10-minute break is an excellent way to increase your energy reserves. This improves your capacity for self-discipline. We know that any type of self-control activity depletes your glucose energy reserves. Yet, a research study demonstrated that taking a 10-minute rest period restored the participants’ energy reserves to optimal levels. Another study showed similar results when participants performing a brief relaxation activity.
We can restore our capacity for self-control to optimal levels by managing our time after we have exercised self-discipline. Taking short breaks or practicing a relaxation activity are credits that we deposit into our energy bank account. They restore our energy after we’ve exercised self-control. Thus, they increase our capacity for self-discipline in the future.
This is why I encourage my clients to take 10-minute breaks during every hour of focused activity at work. It takes lots of energy to concentrate and a brief break will increase your ability to sustain concentration. A short break makes you both more productive and less tired at the end of the day.
Another way to make a deposit in your self-discipline reserves is to generate positive emotions. Positive emotions increase your energy levels and improve your capacity for self-control.
In a study researchers found that participants who experienced positive emotions improved their capacity for self-control. Participants were asked to perform some task of self-control. They were then assigned to one of four groups: positive mood, negative mood, neutral mood, or rest. Participants in the positive mood group watched a comedy video or received a surprise gift. Those in the negative mood group were given an activity to induce sadness. All groups should experience a depletion of self-control because they’ve performed a task requiring self-control. Yet, the positive mood group were as successful in the second task as the control group that had not completed the first task. The positive mood group was also more successful in the second self-control tasks than any of the other groups. This suggests that positive emotions actually increase and restore our self-discipline energy levels.
Use this knowledge to your advantage. Make sure that every day contains activities that make you feel good. Watch that funny you tube video. Read some pages of your favorite book. Chat with your favorite girlfriend on the phone. Too many times we deny ourselves these simple pleasures in life because we are just “too busy.” Yet these activities increase our productivity and improve our ability to meet our goals. The more we demand from ourselves, the more we need to make sure our days are filled with activities that generate positive emotions.
No not a glass of wine; grab an energy drink. We’ve learned that self-discipline has a biological component: glucose levels. Alcohol decreases glucose throughout the brain and body. No wonder it’s associated with such poor judgment and the inability to exercise self-control. Yet, there are many energy drinks that can restore our glucose levels. In a research study, participants who consumed a glucose drink between two self-control tasks showed no weakening of self-control in the second task. It seems that this glucose drink eliminated the usual impairment that occurs after exercising self-control. So the next time you exercised self-control, reward yourself with an energy drink to keep your momentum of success going.
You do not have to remain complacent with your current level of will power. Like the muscles in your body, your self-discipline muscle can be exercised in a way that strengthens your life. Practicing the techniques described above will improve your success at setting and achieving your goals. You will also reap the financial, emotional, health, and relationship rewards that come with improved self-discipline.
You owe it to yourself to start today. Please let me know if you’d like my support in your efforts to set and accomplish goals, increase your self-discipline, and improve your life. You can email me at [email protected] or call (505)66-FOCUS. Wishing you success in using self-discipline to create your life of bliss!
People who are successful in life and their careers have mastered the skill of saying no. They don’t say no to everything. Instead, they say no to people, projects, and activities that are in not line with their core values and life purpose. In this article I share how this simple word can help you create balance in your life and work. I also share two easy techniques to help you develop the habit of saying no to everything that is not in line with your core values and purpose.
Early in my career as a college professor, I was overwhelmed with service obligations. I was new on campus and everyone wanted to take advantage of my new energy and areas of expertise. They frequently invited me to participate in their projects, classes, and committees. Additionally, the fact that I was also one of a handful of black faculty on campus meant that I was the first person to come to mind for any request related to diversity.
Service is my way of life. I am always looking for ways that I can add value to others through my unique gifts and talents. I was also eager to get to know and work collaboratively with my new students, colleagues, and administrators. But the expansiveness of my service and teaching obligations made it difficult for me to find time for my research, my family, and my other life priorities.
I quickly learned that I needed to perfect the art of saying no if I was going to be able to thrive in this career and in all the other areas of my life.
Developing the habit of saying no to most request was difficult for me and is challenging for many of the women I work with. Many of us pride ourselves on being helpful to others. We are also very concerned about hurting others feelings or disappointing them. However, once you fully understand the value of saying no, it becomes clear that this is a loving and compassionate act for you and others.
By saying no to most request, we protect our time and energy. This enables us to say “yes” to things in line with our core values and life purpose.
We all have a finite amount of time and energy. Spending time on a non-priority project provides less time for our high priority projects. Many of us are overwhelmed because we are doing too many activities. When something that we really want to do comes along, we add it to the list because it’s too great to pass up. But adding to a crammed schedule means that we will not have the focus and energy to do our best in this activity. We may not even enjoy it as much because we’re exhausted from all the other activities jammed into the day.
Often times we don’t want to say no because we don’t want to disappoint the person making the request. Just imagine how disappointed they will be when you don’t complete the job. What about when you don’t do your best work because it’s not high on your internal priorities?
People make requests of us because they value our talents and competencies. They expect us to bring our best game to the requested project. That’s difficult to do when it’s not something that we value. This is what often leads to “forgetting” to do an activity or missing a deadline on a project. It may seem as if we are disorganized or too busy. But in fact, we are unwilling to prioritize that activity given our limited resources. If we communicated this to the person at the time of the request, they could have found someone else who could focus on the activity. But, now they are doubly angry. First, because their activity didn’t go off as envisioned. Second, because they believe that you are the reason that it didn’t.
It is disingenuous to accept a project that is not in line with our purpose and values because we can not do our best work. It’s better to say “no” upfront. We will experience a smaller level of disappointment compared to the disappointment later in the process when we haven’t performed our best.
Resentment occurs when we feel out of control. Saying no helps us to regain control of our life choices. This prevents our growing resentment of others for the choices we make.
Accepting projects based on other people’s values and priorities creates resentment. We act as if they “made” us do something. This resentment is compounded if we think that they are not grateful for our “sacrifice”.
When you do things because they are in line with your purpose and values, you’re not disturbed by the outcome.
If the outcome is different than you expected, or if others don’t appreciate it, you still believe it’s valuable. It’s always nice to have your work valued and appreciated. But when you work on things that you value, it is already valued and appreciated!
We do our best work when we are focusing on projects and activities in line with our core values and life purpose. This is how we get in the flow. In flow, we are fully engrossed in a activity that we find intrinsically meaningful. As such, we are willing to go the extra mile to achieve optimal results.
Also, we gain energy when we work on activities in line with our purpose. This energy enables us to remain engaged in action. It also provides us with creative insight that isn’t available to people with more peripheral interest.
Have you found that when others tire and shut down, you can sustain your engagement? Are you able to see possibilities and opportunities more clearly than others? This resilience and problem solving ability comes from your sincere passion and curiosity. It is easy to do your best at things in line with your purpose. Your passion gives you the curiosity, insight, and motivation needed to excel.
Reflecting upon how you feel after an activity is an indicator of its relationship to your purpose and values. If you feel physically tired but emotionally energized, you are likely doing something in line with your purpose. If you feel drained and depleted, you’re probably not working within your purpose.
While the work may not be easy; it is easy to excel at activities in line with your purpose.
You owe it to yourself, and others, to only accept projects that bring out your best. This is where you can make your greatest contribution.
You understand why it’s critical to say no on a regular basis. Now let’s consider how you are going to build that habit into your life. Having “yes” as our default position has become a habit for many of us. That bad habit is not going to change without intentional intervention.
I’ve listed two proven strategies to help you address your habitual yes. These techniques will shift your default response from “yes ” to “no to anything that is not in line with my purpose and core values”.
Fasting means to refrain from food or activities for a specific period of time. The purpose of the fast is break existing habits. It is also intended to promote reflection and introspection.
Taking a yes fast means that you will say “no” to all requests of you for a specific period of time. That period may be a month or a year. I suggest at least a month so that you can say “no” long enough for it to become your new default. It will also give you enough time to observe the consequences of saying no. This will help you become more comfortable with the new habit.
At first saying no may feel very uncomfortable and others may exert even more pressure on you. This is especially true if you’ve developed a habit for saying yes. But, staying the course will allow you to observe that others’ can adjust and the world will go on. Although you may believe (or people may suggest to you) that you are the only one who can do this activity.
Saying no allows you to see that other people really can step up and do the activity. Or if the activity doesn’t occur, perhaps that’s fine as well. Perhaps that was not the best way to meet the need/goal anyway.
This will be a scary experience in the beginning.
Developing a habit of saying no requires both faith and courage.
Faith to believe that you really are meant to do those things in line with your life purpose and core values. Courage to protect the space to do that. Your faith and courage will reward you with increased time and energy. This reclaimed time and energy can be invested developing yourself and your purpose.
If the thought of saying no to absolutely everything is too scary for you, set a narrow parameter. Your parameter should require you to say no to 90% of new requests but allows a small fraction to still get a yes.
After my early years of teaching, I realized I needed to change from my default yes. But, I felt unprepared to go 100% cold turkey no. After discussing this with my trusted friends and mentors, I decided to say no for an entire year to any request that would take more than two hours of my time. The two-hour time limit included the time to prepare and participate in the activity. This was a very difficult thing for me to do. I called my closest friends on a weekly basis with all the reasons why I should make exceptions to my rule. Thankfully, I have great friends who continued to remind me of my commitment and why it was important.
With the help of my support team, I was able to stay the course. By the end of the year, my default was no longer “yes”. I was able to experience the value added to my life of saying no to the many “good, but not purpose-driven” requests made of my time.
Another option to help you move from a default of yes is to establish a No Committee. The No Committee takes the stress away from you of deciding whether to say no.
You select close friends and family members that know you, your work, and your life well. You then explain to them your intention of saying no to non-purpose driven activities. Clearly articulate to the No Committee your life purpose and core values. This will become their guide for all their decisions. Inform them that you commit to abiding by the decisions of the committee.
Because the committee is made up of people who love you (but are not you) they can evaluate the request with emotional distance and clarity. They agree to compare the request to your established priorities and core values. Then make their decision based whether the request is line with your purpose.
The No Committee must have an odd number so that there is never a tie. The committee must agree to respond with a quick turn-around to any request that you pass along to them. I’ve served on a No Committee for years. I have found it a useful and effective way to support my loved ones in achieving more balance in life and work.
Your balanced life can begin today! It requires you to prioritize activities related to your purpose and core values. Say no to everything else! You’ll be amazed at how you can increase your impact on the world and your own happiness. If you’d like other resources to help you better manage your time and balance your energy, check out my YouTube videos on time management and emotion management.
Share you thoughts on effective strategies to create balance in your life. Let’s keep the wisdom flowing! Comment below.
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