As humanity’s greatest minds work hard to make every day tasks easier, quicker and more straight-forward, we as a society are slowly becoming more and more comfortable with instant gratification, and becoming less willing to work for what we want.
All tall buildings have elevators; public transport is faster and more convenient; smartphones can be unlocked with nothing more than a glance or touch. Even fast food, which we would once work so hard to collect in our cars, can now be delivered right to our doors.
It’s a good life, but with ease, comes laziness, and the thing with laziness is: our brain gets comfortable with it. So, what can we do to train our brains to stay motivated and improve willpower?
Yes, I’m easing you in. Sleep deprivation and tiredness make us susceptible to temptation. Self-control takes a ton of brain power, and when we’re tired, our bodies don’t tend to deliver enough glucose to our brain for it to get the willpower engine going.
So, if you want to reach your goals… you should perhaps start by going to bed.
2. Eat plenty of healthy fats
Your brain is composed of 60 percent fat, so it should come as no surprise that you need fats in your diet in order for your brain to work effectively. And even though your brain accounts for such a small portion of our bodyweight (no offence), it utilises 20 percent of your body’s metabolic energy.
To keep your brain on top form and ensure your prefontal cortex is keeping you on your best behaviour, make sure it’s fuelled with healthy fats from things like nuts, seeds, oils and avocados.
3. Strike a high-power pose
This one’s easy. Strike a tall, open power-pose to boost not only your willpower, but your confidence and self-esteem.
Amy Cuddy, a professor at the Harvard School of Business, gave a TED Talk in 2012 on the impact that our body language has on our own mentality.
There are two kinds of power poses: high and low. A high-power pose usually means having your body open rather than hunched up. That means chest out, arms spread, no slouch. Essentially, it means that you try to take up a great deal of space.
A low-power pose is the opposite: a pose that makes you small and bunched up, having the opposite effect on our minds.
Researchers found that holding a high-power pose for as little as a couple of minutes increases testosterone levels (which are associated with confidence) and decreases your cortisol levels (which are associated with stress).
In addition to striking high-power pose, you can focus on the position of your feet, smile more, align yourself better with your conversation partner, and lower your voice with deep breathing.
4. Carry around something tempting
This one is for people who have at least a small amount of willpower already but want an effective challenge. Carry something tempting around in your bag or pocket. Perhaps something sweet and sugary that you know you shouldn’t be eating.
Throughout the day, you’ll suddenly remember the temptation is there, and you’ll have to force yourself to say no.
Why is this helpful? Well, researchers now look at willpower like a muscle—it can get exhausted by overuse, but just like our physical muscles, can be strengthened with training.
So, in theory, the more you do exercises like this one, the stronger your willpower will become.
5. Create a reward system
Similar to other animals, our brains function well using a reward system. Would you bother to exercise regularly if you weren’t given the rewards of feeling healthier, looking better and living longer?
So, creating a little reward system proves to be an encouraging way of keeping on track. It can be as simple as including a ‘cheat day’ in your diet.
Just don’t go overboard. There’s more than 1300 calories in a large Big Mac meal, so don’t stop off at McDonald’s on the way home from an hour long gym session.
6. Eat some chocolate
Chocolate may be the one thing you’re trying to cut down on, but this could be your treat, or part of your reward system.
Eating chocolate, or some other dopamine-releasing treat, is another low-tech hack to increasing your level of willpower.
Studies show that when you eat chocolate, the following happens:
- It increases both serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes calm, and also phenylethylamine, which promotes stimulation. White chocolate does both even more intensely.
- It triggers a release of dopamine, which will elevate your heart rate and significantly increase motivation.
- It also results in a mild antidepressant effect, literally because your brain responds to the stimulants by promoting blissful emotions.
Other dopamine-inducing foods include blueberries, spirulina, and fish high in Omega-3 fats.
7. Plan to fail
Okay, so ‘plan to fail’ doesn’t mean ‘try to fail’. What this means is: expect some kind of failure and develop a plan to ensure the slip doesn’t result in you completely giving up.
For example, if you tell yourself you’re going to stick to a specific diet or calorie intake, but you fail, don’t throw your hands in the air and remind yourself how sh*t you are at life.
Resort to plan B: do an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill at the end of your next gym session, or cut your calories slightly from the following day.
This failure plan will massively reduce the risk of you giving up entirely just because you ‘failed’. If you take a step back, just take two steps forward and keep going.
8. Understand the social rule of thirds
This rule is more commonly used in business by aspiring entrepreneurs, but can prove useful when setting out to become more motivated in every day life.
“Surround yourself with people who are on your level; people who are lagging behind; and people who are where you want to be.” By observing all of these different people, you can gain perspective and pick up on the habits and mindsets of people that you want to be like, and people that you don’t.
Think of it in physical terms. If you walk down the same path as someone, you’ll end up in the same place. So choose wisely who you walk with.
9. Make quick decisions
Usually if we’re working towards a goal and are faced with temptation, the first decision we make it to not give in. Saying no to the temptation as quickly as possible and moving on is the best way to go about these challenges.
But then the little devil on our shoulder starts to blurt out all of the reasons why, maybe, we should just go for it. Just this once. Which brings us to the next tip…
10. Learn to differentiate the 2 voices in your head
In any situation that sparks temptation of some sort, we can listen to one of two voices in our head. The smart and positive voice that wants us to do the right thing; and the other one. The one that ruins our lives by telling us to say… “F*ck it. Why not?”
Get to know these little voices and develop a relationship with each of them. Think of the good voice as being strong and independent, wanting what’s best for you. Then, think of the other voice as being a destructive, negative impact that only thinks about instant gratification and not long term goals.
Check out The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters if you want to better understand how these two voices work.
11. Do your more challenging tasks early in the day
Willpower works like a muscle and can therefore be energised or tired. Knowing that the part of the brain that manages willpower becomes fatigued throughout the day, we should prioritise important tasks by completing them sooner rather than later.
That way we’re more likely to get tasks (going to the gym and preparing meals, for example) done when they need doing, instead of becoming tired later on and deciding you’re just not up for it.
12. Revisit the past
Taking pictures of yourself might feel awkward, but looking at old photos is a reminder of the progress you’ve made, and can continue to make if you continue with the hard work.
Every few weeks, take a photo and store it in your phone or computer, then compare your new photos to old ones whenever you need a reminder of your progress.
From this, you’ll get visual confirmation that you’re actually making progress, which can be the boost you need when you’re having a tough day.
13. Think highly of yourself
We assume that having a big ego makes us narcissistic, bad people. But it doesn’t. If you think little of yourself, you’ll aim for, and achieve, little. If you think more of yourself, you’ll aim for, and achieve, more.
In the same way a parent should tell their children that they’re capable of great things, you should say it to yourself and give yourself a reputation to live up to. Which leads us on to the next point…
14. Tell yourself, and other people, that you have strong willpower.
Many of us say things like “I’m just not a naturally confident person.” Or, in this case… “I just don’t have the willpower.” Well, guess what? Every time you say something like that, it becomes a little more true.
If you consider yourself to be a certain character, you will play your role. If you were to buy a book on confidence building today, you can guarantee to find a section that tells you to repeat the words “I’m a confident person” over and over again. Why? Because it works.
In the same way we begin to believe lies we’re told when they’re repeated enough times, we believe what we say to ourselves.
15. Write up an official contract and donate to charity if you lose
You’ve may never have heard of stickK.com, but it’s a platform that people can use to write up informal contracts that help achieve goals and targets.
For example, if you want to lose weight, ask a friend to monitor that you’ll get it done. Put up some money, and if you succeed, you get your money back. But, if you fail, then your friend donates the money to a charity of your choice.
StickK is an example of a commitment device, and it’s a remarkable mechanism for getting things done. Rather than a loose determination to make an abstract goal in the future, you have a concrete task to work towards on a specific date, and you lose more than your pride if you fail.
16. Look at something green
Different colours trigger different thoughts and feelings in our heads. Red, for example, creates a sense of urgency, so sale signs in shops are often red, because people react faster and more forcefully when they see it.
Green, on the other hand, has been shown to boost both motivation and energy. Researchers have found that adding more green to your surroundings provides a boost in motivation, and even creativity.
In one 2012 study, researchers at the University of Essex asked subjects to perform three cycling exercises while watching a video of a rural cycling course. The videos were randomly selected to have green, grey, or red filters.
The green filter made the cyclists happier and less tired. Simply seeing lots of green made them more motivated.
Another study asked subjects to write as many uses for a tin can as they could think of in under two minutes, before being graded them for creativity. Before each test they showed the subjects quick flashes of green, blue, white, and grey. And, as they predicted, the colour that was most associated with encouraging creativity was green.
So, for a quick physical boost to your willpower, take a 10 minute walk outside or relax in the garden for a while (perhaps with a small amount of chocolate).
17. Follow pages and join communities
We all have social media profiles. Take 5 minutes to search for pages or profiles, to Like or Follow, that will encourage inspiration.
Having this steady stream of motivation trickling down your news feed is a good way to constantly remind yourself to stay positive and work towards your goals.
18. Learn to like the fact that it’s a long term change
If you expect fast results when approaching any goal, you’ll become frustrated when things don’t take off as quickly as you’d hoped. With this frustration will come an urge to just quit and, maybe, come back to it later.
Get used to the idea that this is a lifestyle change and you’re investing in a long term plan.
19. Have powerful reasons
Why are you exercising, exactly? Getting in shape for a holiday is great, but the chances are, things are going to go downhill when you get home if all you want is to look good in swimwear.
Why work your arse off for 6 weeks prior to a holiday when you can just maintain an enjoyable, healthy lifestyle year round and always feel good about yourself.
You should also be thinking about your future. In Britain, nearly 30% of women and just under 27% men are now overweight, whilst the obesity rate among adult Americans was estimated at 32.2% for men and 35.5% for women.
If you don’t look after your own health, some other poor sod (a family member, for example) will have to.
20. Realise the mental changes you’re encountering
When we begin exercising, it’s usually to look better. But, once you start, it’s important to pick up on the changes that are happening in your head.
The changes in your mindset are only going to make achieving your fitness goals easier, so stick at what you’re doing and notice how you’re becoming a better person, inside and out.
21. Visualise your goal.
We hear celebrities talk about this all the time. Jim Carey famously spoke to Oprah Winfrey about how he would visualise his famous lifestyle before anybody knew his name. Check out the video below: