3 ways to boost your willpower

Instant gratification is no way to get ahead in business, but can you learn perseverance?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 May 2017

Sometimes in the world of business we have to do things we don’t particularly want to. It’s a rare and really rather sad individual who actually looks forward to sunny Saturdays slaving over a big report, or dreary networking receptions that drag you away from family meals, or difficult conversations with underperforming colleagues.

Yet success is intimately linked with our ability to subordinate short-term concerns to long-term objectives. Willpower, perseverance, true grit – whatever you want to call it, you need it. It’s what allows you to stay organised in the chaos of the modern workplace and all its distractions, and it’s what makes you finish what you started, despite the pain and sacrifice involved.

(It’s important not to confuse willpower with obstinacy. Obstinacy is brittle; willpower, on the other hand, does not exclude the wisdom to change one’s approach or indeed change one’s mind.)

If your workplace willpower needs an upgrade, don’t despair. There are certain things you can do. All you need to do to start is get to the end of this brief article...*

1. You can cheat

Understanding why you can’t stop watching cat videos when you’re supposed to be doing VAT invoices is critical to changing your behaviour. ‘The pre-frontal cortex is where our rationality is, our over-ride switch. The limbic system is where our habits lie. It really is a war of two brains,’ explains Ros Taylor, psychologist, coach and author of Willpower: Discover it, use it and get what you want.

If you’re not careful, the limbic system will win this war by sheer attrition, but luckily it doesn’t have to be a fair fight. Distraction (e.g. biting your tongue when you really want to give your boss a piece of your mind) and avoidance (e.g. keeping your alarm out of reach, so you actually have to get out of bed to turn it off) are both time-honoured tricks for overcoming temptation.

Taylor also recommends pausing and thinking of your goals. ‘It halts the immediate reaction of reaching out and putting that sweet into your mouth.’

2. Form new habits

The habits that we’ve accumulated over the years dictate a surprisingly high proportion of our actions, but habits can be unlearned. Let’s say you’re a wannabe entrepreneur, full of ideas that you act on but never fully see through. That is a habit, defined by a cue (a perceived lack of progress in your idea), a behaviour (giving up) and a reward (you’re now free to try another idea).

A more productive habit when faced with a perceived lack of progress could be to write down how far you’ve come and keep going, knowing you’ll have done more tomorrow than you have today.

‘If you want to establish a new behaviour, you need to do it for three weeks. To turn it into a new habit, you need to repeat it for nine weeks,’ says Taylor. ‘Consistency is key.’

3. Mindset not muscle

‘There’s a lot of research about willpower as a muscle: if you have a tough time at a meeting, you’re more likely to indulge later on. But a lot of the later literature says no, that’s not the case. Actually, the more willpower you have, the more you tell yourself you have, the easier it becomes to do stuff,’ says Taylor. ‘It’s a mindset not a muscle.’

This is important because any muscle, no matter how strong it is, can be exhausted if it’s pushed hard enough. A mindset cannot. It takes away the inevitability of defeat, and the excuse of weakness.

Then it all really comes down to how much you want that promotion or that contract. Here, it might help to visualise your objective, focusing not just on the end result but also on achieving the necessary steps on the way. Writing it down or even drawing on paper it can be helpful, anything that reminds you of how much you want it and why.

*Well done. Unless you skipped. In which case you may as well give up now...

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