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Setting Simple Goals Boosts Willpower

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a little help enhacing willpower? There are so many remedies out there for all kinds of enhancements, but the prescription for enhancing willpower seems to be lacking. My personal supply of willpower seems to come and go, ebb and flow.

Looking at an overflowing bowl of leftover Halloween candy made me think about willpower and my lack thereof. My brother has immense willpower. He has no vices, rarely eats unhealthy foods and looks years younger than his age. I decided to question my mother to find out what, if anything, she had done differently. Did she make him make his bed everyday?  “No,” My mother said, “He didn’t have to make his bed. He didn’t have to do anything. I think willpower has nothing to do with genetics. I think it is acquired by observation. It’s probably from observing our grandparents.”

In a NY Times article, “How to Boost Your Willpower,” Tara Parker-Pope sites research showing small changes such as making the bed every day or giving up just one food may be a way to strengthen one’s self-control. (So, it does go back to making the bed!) Life does seem more in control when the beds are made. There was an interesting comment to the Times article, by counselor and consultant, Mark C. Hoffmann of British Columbia, Canada.

Hoffmann describes asking his college students to toss two sheets of paper in the air, which they did self-consciously and half-heartedly. But when he placed wastebaskets around the room and then asked students to toss the paper into the bins without leaving their seats, their enthusiasm for the activity soared. Students very energetically crumbled the paper and tossed it in or they constructed paper airplanes. This time they knew what was expected of them. I quickly tracked down Mr. Hoffmann to learn more. He explained the goal was clearer when the students knew where to toss the paper. Their goals were achievable. If the bins had been placed way too far away, the students would not have been so energetic.

Mr. Hoffmann says, “To increase willpower, shoot for a tangible goal. If you break the goals into realistic chunks, you can achieve the goal in manageable stages.  If you want to lose 10 pounds, set realistic targets. Say to yourself, I want to lose two pounds by Thanksgiving. You’ll do it because that is an achievable goal. Willpower will be sucked dry when the goal is too far away.” Does Mr. Hoffmann consider himself a man with lots of willpower? “I have it in certain areas, like cycling and running. I’ve done the Iron Man Triathlon, 12 times and the Boston Marathon five times, and that allows me to eat ice cream and it won’t show. But I’ve neither the interest nor the willpower to pursue a PhD. I just couldn’t face it.”

Willpower seems directly related to the person who you want to be, but you have to postpone the immediate gratification (butter pecan ice cream?) and visualize the improvement. (Gwyneth Paltrow?)

Now that’s something I can do while I finish making the bed.

Jeanne Hard lives in Norwalk.

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