As the New Year begins, most of us have resolved to make positive changes in our lives. Unfortunately, odds are that most of us won’t be able to stick with our good intentions! Whether you would like to lose weight, exercise regularly or stop smoking, breaking the cycle of unhealthy habits won’t happen overnight or with ease. Willpower and self-discipline are required to make permanent, positive lifestyle changes. However, there is hope for those who just can’t seem to stick with New Year’s resolutions. Science has proven that, as the old saying goes, “where there is a will there is a way.”
According to a March 2010 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association, less than one in five adults, or 16 percent, successfully make health related lifestyle changes such as weight loss (20 percent), adhering to an exercise program (15 percent), sticking to a healthier diet (10 percent), or even stress reduction (7 percent). Those polled report that the obstacles standing in their way included: willpower (33 percent), lack of support (24 percent) and stress (20 percent).
Willpower is defined as the ability to resist temptations and impulses in order to achieve long-term goals. Self-discipline means that when confronted with a task you do it, whether you like it or not. Sometimes this means ignoring the urge to do what is easy, fun or quick and focus your energy on what is more difficult, but necessary. Successful people tend to focus their mental and physical effort on the things in life that add value, as opposed to wasting time and energy lounging in front of the television, surfing the Internet or playing video games.
Experts agree that resisting temptation and making the decision to lead a healthier, happier life takes a mental toll. Willpower can compared to a muscle that can actually fatigue when overused. But, like a muscle, the will can be strengthened to help you achieve your lifestyle-related goals. We can strengthen our willpower by resisting thoughts, actions, feelings, and reactions that are unhealthy, unimportant or just plain unnecessary. By performing tasks that you usually avoid due to procrastination, laziness or even shyness, you are strengthening your willpower. Researchers at the University of Albany-State University of New York asked 122 smokers who wished to drop the habit to exercise self-control by either squeezing a grip strengthener for as long as they could twice a day or avoiding sweets. Twenty seven percent of those that practiced the self-control exercise kicked their cigarette habit as opposed to 12 percent of the volunteers given a task in which self-control was not necessary.
Studies show that self-control is a limited resource that can be strengthened or diminished by our environment. Self-restraint lowers your blood sugar. Frequent small meals and healthy snacks can restore your blood sugar and help replenish your self-control. Laughter, a good mood, and pleasant powerful memories can all boost our self-control.
Tips for Success
**Don’t make multiple resolutions for the New Year. Direct all your willpower toward mastering a single goal. Plan how you will achieve this goal and overcome the obstacles that may stand in your way. Most resolutions, such as losing weight, require many behavior changes such as healthier food choices, smaller portions and exercise.
**Avoid temptation whenever possible. If the negative impulse is “out of sight,” chances are it’s “out of mind.” Develop a plan for occasions that arise when you will be in a tempting situation. Being hungry, tired, or stressed will wear down your willpower, so avoid temptations until you have eaten and feel rested.
**Set short term goals. Identify small, realistic and manageable goals that can easily be defined and measured. If weight loss is your goal then vow to exercise three times during the week, bring a healthy lunch to work each day and replace desert with a healthy snack. Want to increase your exercise level? Schedule a time each day when to exercise and plan specific work outs each week. You will feel successful as you accomplish each goal. Put your goals down on paper and include what motivates you to achieve each goal. Your willpower is strongest when you make a specific resolution so try to capture that intensity. When you feel unmotivated or weak, refer back to your list of reasons and feel inspired. A picture says a thousand words so post a picture of a healthier, slimmer you on the refrigerator. No picture? Select one that inspires you from a magazine. Create accountability. Set dates to evaluate your progress. Celebrate small successes.
**Establish a support system. Share your goals with friends and family. You may even find someone who shares similar goals that you can work out with or try to quit smoking with. Consider joining a support group. Studies show that support groups, or even just a friend to encourage you, will help you to be successful.
**Utilize available resources. If you want to quit smoking, call the Tobacco Quit Line (1-800-QUIT NOW). Weight Watchers is one of the most successful resources for those trying to lose weight. There are phone apps available to track your calories, exercise, etc.
**Don’t give up! Setbacks are bound to happen, and this, sadly, is the most common reason that resolutions are abandoned. Just as we learn from a disastrous run in competition, we need to do the same constructive approach to our lifestyle changes. Analyze the situation and figure out what could have been done to avoid that setback. If your strategies are not working, develop a new plan.
**Practice self-discipline. No one is born a naturally self-disciplined person, however, the good news is that it can be learned and strengthened with practice. The more you exercise your willpower, the stronger you will become. As you gain discipline, you will notice greater self-confidence, better self-esteem and growing inner strength. Increasing willpower and self-discipline puts us in control of our behavior and actions, instead of us being controlled by them.
About Martha Smith
Martha Smith resides in Hazelhurst, Miss., a small community south of Jackson, and has been a member of the NBHA for 15 years, competing actively in Mississippi District 05. In 2006 she earned the Open 3D Mid-South National championship and has qualified for numerous NBHA World Shows. Smith now serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi School of Nursing in the Family Nurse Practitioner program, teaching RNs how to become nurse practitioners.