I have an unscientific definition of willpower: It's getting yourself to do something that you don't want to do.
Everyone has willpower. People who are healthy (physically and psychologically) have 100 percent willpower in some areas. For example, you may brush your teeth, get dressed, and leave for work on time every day, whether you feel like it or not.
But most people have at least one area in which they have much less willpower. You may, for example, have difficulty getting yourself to consistently eat in a healthy way, exercise, hold your temper, keep your spending in check, or pay your bills in a timely fashion -- even though you'd like to be able to get yourself to do these things and you recognize the consequences of not doing them.
What gets in the way of exerting willpower in an area that's important to you?
A major contributor is your thinking. For example, as you're walking through a big box store, you see a large, Blu-Ray-ready, high-definition television. You think, "I really want that. It would be so great to watch TV on that instead of what I have now." Your inclination is to pull out your credit card and buy it. The next set of thoughts that pops into your head will determine what you do. If you think, "I can't afford it. It will just drive me deeper into credit card debt. I'll have to wait," you will feel disappointed, but you'll end up walking away. On the other hand, if you think, "I know I shouldn't get it but I have to have it," you'll end up buying a TV that you can't afford.
How can you increase your willpower? Here are some techniques, using exercise as an example, that should help:
Specify your goal in behavioral terms. Not, "I want to be more physically fit," but, "I want to go to the gym three times a week for 45 minutes."
Make sure your goal is reasonable. If you have been sedentary, you may need to start off with a more modest exercise goal and increase your efforts as you go along.
Reflect on all the reasons you have to reach your goal. Think of as many reasons as you can and keep adding to the list:
Read this list every morning, even if you think you don't need to. You never know when your willpower will slip. Prepare yourself every day. And the more you read through your list, the clearer it will be to you why you should push yourself to engage in a behavior that perhaps at the moment, you'd rather not do.
Reflect on the consequences of not reaching your goal. "If I don't get myself to the gym, I won't be healthier; my back will hurt; my body won't be toned, I won't look better, I won't be stronger, " and so on.
Prioritize. If you already have an overly busy schedule, how will you find the time to get to the gym? You will need to say, "Going to the gym is a top priority. Which activities and tasks will I need to postpone, delegate, do less of, or do less well?" Then enter "going to the gym" in your schedule and make it sacrosanct.
Solve problems that interfere with goal attainment. To get to the gym three times a week, you may need to negotiate with others, be more flexible with your timing, or ask for a ride. Beware of all-or-nothing thinking like, "If I skip one day at the gym, I might as well skip the whole week," or, "If I can't do 45 minutes, it's not worth going at all."
Beware of excuses. "It's okay to skip the gym today because I'm tired/I'm upset/it won't really matter/I don't feel like it/I'll go tomorrow instead/I deserve a break."
Say "no choice." You probably don't give yourself a choice about wearing a seat-belt. Whether you feel like wearing it or not isn't relevant to you. You do it anyway. You don't struggle over the behavior because you have already decided you just have to do it. Put going to the gym in your "no choice" category.
Recognize that every time matters. It's not that each time is crucial for building muscles. It's that each time is crucial for building the habit of going to the gym. Every time you're tempted to skip going, and you do skip, you're reinforcing your habit of giving in, which makes it more likely that in the future you'll also give in. But every time you're tempted to skip going and you make yourself go, you reinforce your habit of doing what you need to do to reach your goal, which makes it more likely that you'll keep up the habit in the future. So every time matters. Don't fool yourself into thinking it doesn't.
Give yourself credit. It's important to positively reinforce yourself every time you take steps toward your goal. Saying, "It's good that I'm doing this," can help you build your sense of self-efficacy and your sense that you can make yourself do things you don't want to do, which will help during the moments in which your willpower wavers. Don't wait until you reach your ultimate goal to praise yourself. It's very important to do so all along the way.
One big payoff for working toward a goal isn't always obvious from the start. When you make yourself do things you don't feel like doing, you will likely feel more in control, which may also lead to other positive spin-offs in your life. "I can make myself go to the gym -- maybe that means I can also make myself ..." Building willpower, accomplishing goals, and feeling in control can be powerful rewards in their own right.
Follow Judith S. Beck, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/beckinstitute