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The Will (and Skill) Behind Making Lifestyle Changes

Willpower is key if you want to achieve lifestyle changes that count.Congratulations on your decision to make lifestyle changes for the better, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re already finding it difficult to keep yourself on track. Sometimes, when it comes to the temptations that distract us most, we all struggle to find self-control. Other times, when we are dealing with a behavior that is so ingrained, it can seem just too tough to tackle.

Is willpower really the key to it all—and you just don’t have any? Or is there something else you can do? How can you set yourself up to succeed at being your healthiest self?

Yes, it willpower is a very important key, but it isn’t something we are born with. Rather, it is a skill we can all develop to meet our most important needs.

What is willpower?

The American Psychological Association calls willpower “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” Willpower can mean not doing something, like refusing that second helping of dessert. It can also mean doing something, like getting up early to exercise rather than sleeping in. It can also mean calling for a time-out, like forcing yourself to leave a shopping mall before you make purchases that you really can’t afford.

In each case, willpower is about taking positive actions for yourself, recognizing dangerous temptations and consciously attempting to make better choices. But how do you strengthen your willpower, so it’s there when you need it? And is willpower enough to keep you on track to meet your goals?

Making effective lifestyle changes means saying no to unhealthy desserts.

Willpower, meet skill power

Lasting lifestyle and behavioral changes don’t happen overnight—and to expect that they can makes the challenge seem more difficult than it needs to be. Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait.

Inside everyone the ability exists to develop the skills necessary to make changes that last. And if you break down seemingly unattainable goals into manageable bite-size portions, you have a much greater chance of working your way towards the achievement of your most important goals.

Work out your willpower

Think of your willpower as being like a muscle that you may be exercising for the first time. Like weak upper arm muscles that tremble and wobble during those first pushups, your willpower may seem pretty shaky when you start. But as with any muscle, it’s something you can strengthen over time—if you make a habit of working it out.

And, much as you wouldn’t plan to run a marathon in the midday summer heat, don’t put your willpower to the test when you know you are exhausted. There’s a connection between your emotions and your ability to turn down that slice of birthday cake at the office—a grueling morning can limit your ability to meet goals later in the day.

When you exercise your willpower, you need to make sure you’re not overdoing it. If you take on a bigger challenge than you’re ready for—like losing 50 pounds—and try to tackle it when you’re least prepared—like scheduling workouts at the ends of busy days when it’s far easier o push them off—you won’t build willpower. You’ll just end up painfully disappointed and being down on yourself.

Team up towards success

People do need people—and when people help each other stay steadfast and work towards goals, it’s called the buddy system. When you commit to a plan—whether it’s to lose five pounds, quit smoking or work your way up to running a 5k—having a partner working towards a similar goal benefits you both. Not only do you keep each other accountable, you encourage each other to move forward towards success.

And a buddy isn’t the only person you can get on your team. Talk about your lifestyle goals with friends and family. Once they know what you’re trying to do, they won’t unwittingly tempt you off course (for example, baking you a birthday cake while you’re on a diet). They’ll know to be on the lookout for changes in your behavior and appearance, and can congratulate you when those changes become apparent. They’ll also be the people you can open up to, and who can help you dissipate negative feelings and gain the emotional skills you need to navigate a successful behavior change.

Support your willpower with strategies

Willpower matters, but it’s not your entire plan. The best plans have support behind them, to help keep you on track.

One of the most effective strategies is precommitting. In this strategy, you use a commitment device to strengthen your position by cutting off some of your options to make your promises to yourself more credible. In short, you’re ridding your environment of the temptations that might test you, and cutting off or diminishing your ability to backpedal.

For example, you might get rid of all the sugary junk foods in your house, or flush all your cigarettes down the toilet. You might fill yourself with vegetables and healthy foods before attending a party where you know you’ll be tempted by richer, more fattening foods. You may even precommit to an exercise plan by paying in advance for a personal trainer or fitness instructor to visit you at your house—where you can’t avoid them.

Another great strategy is thinking small. Setting small, incremental goals that you regularly meet is the best way to boost your willpower. Small successes get you used to the feeling of success—and it becomes easier for you to continue making the good choices that enable those successes.

It takes more than will—but you’ve got it

With the right guidance, support and some consistent practice, you can strengthen the skills you need to make even the toughest lifestyle changes. And, your change doesn’t need to involve losing 50 pounds or training for a marathon to seem difficult. Likewise, your achievements don’t have to be enormous for you to experience the thrill of success. So long as you keep working at your willpower, you’ll keep it strong, supple and prepared to help you whenever you need it.

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