When we think of willpower, we think of strength or self-control. We might see someone with the physique we want and automatically think, “wow, she must be SO disciplined.” Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, calls willpower “the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to.” Often, this shows up as a struggle between what we want now and what we want long term. For example, you want the ice cream for dessert because you had a long, stressful day, but you also want to cut back your sugar intake to improve your health and reach your weight goal by summer. When you decide cutting sugar matters most and skip the ice cream, you’ve exercised willpower.
Delayed gratification is also a type of willpower. It can be tempting to view people who can wait as stronger than most, but their motivation could come from something different entirely: personal values.
What do our values have to do with it?
Just as Tina Turner asked us what’s love got to do with it, you might ask what our values have to do with willpower? When we narrow down our values so that they connect with our goals and they matter to us, we are more likely to exhibit self-control and stick to our goals.
To make this work, we must become aware of how prepared we are to make choices that align with our values. Preparation can help us withstand the discomfort of delayed gratification or maintain a stronger sense of control.
Step 1: Recognize and define your values—both long-term and short-term.
Be willing to recognize what’s really important to you. Don’t “should” on yourself: If you start a new lifestyle change simply because you think you should, your WHY isn’t heart-felt enough to drive the adoption of your new behaviors. Make it important. Make it matter. It will help you succeed in the long run. Don’t change your lifestyle just because the latest and greatest influencer promoted something.
Step 2: Increase your ability to withstand discomfort.
Learn how to manage your stress and plan ways to keep your stress levels low. This could include simple things like preparing food ahead of time to keep your blood sugar balanced. That simple step can keep your brain operating at peak levels, allowing you to make decisions that are in alignment with your values or with what McGonigal calls your “big why.” Set yourself up for success by preparing to support your new goals as much as possible. For example, removing processed foods and providing yourself with replacements is one way to adopt a healthier eating habit.
Recognize that the self-control system is bound to have moments of conflict and struggle. However, you are more likely to achieve your goals by extending your self-compassion and putting yourself in a more positive mindset.
Step 3: Get support and help with accountability.
This is where having an accountability partner can help you succeed. Self-control can be both an internal and external process. The more external support you have, the more likely you are to hold tight to your goals.
Step 4: Start with small, actionable steps.
Baby steps prevent your brain from the back-and-forth struggle with whether you should do something that might end up feeling monumental. Small steps that feel manageable build up the intrinsic reward system in the body and brain and make it easier to adopt change. We build on established habits that can lead to lasting habits. Start by asking yourself: “What is one small step that I can take today that will help me reach my long-term goal? What is one small step to move the needle in the direction of the change that I want to achieve?”
Another strategy is to try habit stacking. Pair a new habit you want to form with a routine you already do. In this way, you build on what you are already doing and prevent brain fatigue. For example, you might start taking a walk around the block when you check your mail. Over time you can add more loops around the block, one at a time. Before you know it, you’ve added in a significant increase in movement.
Whenever we start something new, resistance can show up. Our internal self-control system wants to keep us safe with what is familiar. We might feel like we want to stick to what’s comfortable and put off habit change. However, if we are willing, eager, and ready, we can bring our deepest desires to life and move towards our goals. Which will you be this year?