Did you know that willpower is a lot like coal?
We have a limited amount, and it can very well run out before your husband buys your burial lot. I am pretty sure that I used up a fair chunk in my 20s and 30s trying to stay sober, eat right, exercise five times a week, yada yada yada through a bunch of boredom.
I am determined to get some of my willpower back, so here I have assembled the tricks that have worked in the past.
1. Make fun of your obsession or addiction.
This is remarkably powerful and doesn’t hurt. Example. My friend Mike and I are both hypochondriacs. Whenever we find something else wrong with us, we will call up the other and tell him/her how to choreograph the funeral and which songs we want. In other words, we give the condition WAY too much power. So my job is to make him laugh, and his job is to make me laugh. Because when you laugh, the thing — addiction, obsession, bad habit — isn’t as big of a deal.
Mike called the other day and said his feet were swelling … “What if you are becoming an ogre?!?” I asked him. When my Raynaud’s phenomenon was causing me some real discomfort and worry — turning my hands an orange-purplish color, and I told him that I would probably have to get them amputated, he said, “Oh, that’s too bad. Have you thought about how you would write?” “Of course,” I responded, “I would hold a straw with my mouth and punch the keyboard that way,” at which point he howled, because it was so ridiculous. And then I did too.
2. Image the consequence.
Most of the time, when we are craving carbs or alcohol or a puff of fine weed, we stop at the fun part, the ideal buzz when everything is just right. Our fantasies get stuck on the feeling of grand satisfaction that we are pursuing through the item of our choice. Someone told me once to follow the fantasy through … to the next morning, when I feel like hell from the shots of vodka I was downing, or like a hippopotamus from the five colorful cupcakes I shoved in my mouth, or like I just want to hide in bed forever because the self-disgust is overwhelming. Make sure to go there. To the consequence. Before you let the anticipation of the buzz fool you.
3. Be accountable.
I mentioned this step in my piece, “14 Ways to Recover from an Emotional Affair.” If you are a stage-four people pleaser like I am, or if you are Catholic, this is really effective. Be accountable to a few people in your life for good behavior. Not really like the principal of an elementary school, or, well, yeah, kind of like that. My doctor and my therapist are my principals, because I know what the first thing they are going to ask me is: “So, what’s going on with you?” And at that point, I could lie or tell the truth. If I lied, that would be a big old waste of $125, wouldn’t it? It’s not like confession where you can leave some of it out. I sincerely want to tell them I’m making progress in a certain area of my life. My therapist, especially, will give me “assignments” or things to work on before our next visit. I was always one to get my homework finished on time, so this system works for me.
4. Invest in support.
There is a big difference between attending a support group and participating in a support group. Participants are much less likely to relapse because participants can’t say, “to hell with those meetings” for longer than a few nights before he starts to get phone calls. “You okay? We haven’t seen you in awhile.” No one really notices the attendant, on the contrary, because she hasn’t invested herself into the group.
A real life example! Ever since I had a running injury, I have been swimming a few times a week. A group of very fast, we’re-going-to-swim-the-Chesapeake-Bay swimmers practice at 6 am, and I was a tad intimidated to join in their fun. Plus getting into cold water first thing in the morning wasn’t all that appealing.
So at first I was an attendant. When I didn’t show up, no one really noticed. I was a fringe member. However, recently I have transitioned into a participant. I make a concerted effort to get to know them, show up at the parties (from here on out, at least), and this week I am even calling my first work out (equivalent to chairing a twelve-step support group).
5. Predict times of weakness.
Whenever I give up sweets — usually every year for Lent — I know which hour is going to be hardest. Between three and four in the afternoon. My blood sugar drops and I want nothing more than processed sugar. For awhile, then, I was replacing my sweet treat with roasted almonds… Not nearly as good, but also not as toxic to my mood. When I gave up smoking and then when I gave up smoking again, and then when I gave up smoking the last time, I identified the weak points throughout the day: with my coffee in the morning, after my coffee in the morning, after my shower in the morning … okay you get the point. If you can be prepared for potential temptations in the near future, you have a much better chance of using your will power to overcome the challenge.
6. Build on your strengths.
Twelve-step groups do a brilliant job of this when they distribute one day, one week, one month, one year, 21-year tokens. It’s not like the things are that expensive, but oh man are they valuable! I still remember when I got my first-month token. I wouldn’t let go of it. It was the first success and the foundation for other successes. Positive psychologists today stress the value of building on strengths. It is a crucial key to resiliency, optimism, and yes, will power.