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Norwalk Neighbors Notes: Rx for Willpower

NORWALK, Conn. ? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a little help with willpower enhancement? There are so many remedies out there for all kinds of enhancements, but a 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 started me thinking about willpower and the lack of it. My brother, born of the same parents as I, has immense willpower. He has no vices, he rarely eats unhealthy foods and he looks years younger than his numerical age. I decided to question my mother to find out what, if anything, she did 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.”

Tracey Dinkin of Flax Hill Road is a model, an actress and an avid fitness enthusiast. Tracey thinks willpower is really about focus. “The term willpower is too negative. If you think about it as focus, you have a better chance of regaining it, if you lose it. If you eat that bag of cookies, or carton of ice cream, just say to yourself, ‘I need to shift my focus.’ Then you don’t beat yourself up about it, you just refocus. It is much more positive and it puts you in a better frame of mind, so it’s easier to get back in control.”

Joan Fiorelli of Half Mile Road is someone who grew up with lots of siblings –eight of them, in fact. She thinks of herself as someone who has developed a lot of willpower, and not because her mother made her make the bed. She goes to the gym, plays tennis regularly and follows her personal philosophy of wellness, which includes good food, time with friends and staying away from medicines. “It isn’t about sweating the small stuff like making the bed. For me, as my life has gotten more and more complicated, I remind myself of the rule for oxygen masks on the airlines. ‘Put the mask on yourself first, and then put it on your child.’ Before I can take care of anyone else, I have to take care of myself. When a problem presents itself, I try to solve it. I like to think of myself as a problem solver. At the end of the day, I know it’s up to me. Who you become as a person, when you are honest with yourself, is in your hands. It’s up to you to choose to do something. As long as you have the knowledge that it’s in your hands and don’t rationalize, you will become the person you want to become.”

In a New York Times article, “How to Boost Your Willpower,” author Tara Parker- Pope states that research shows that small changes like 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. One interesting comment to the Times article was written by counselor and consultant Mark C. Hoffmann of British Columbia, Canada.

In his comment, Hoffmann described how he had asked his college students to toss two sheets of paper. Students self-consciously and half-heartedly tossed the paper.  When Hoffmann added 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 the students knew what was expected of them. I quickly tracked down Hoffmann to learn more. He explained that the goal was clearer when the students knew where to toss the paper. The bins were their targets and placed within their reach. Their goals were achievable. If the bins had been placed way too far away, the students would not have been so energetic. Mr. Hoffmann said, “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 2 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 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, the Boston Marathon five times ? that allows me to eat ice cream and it won’t show. But I’ve no interest or the willpower to pursue a Ph.D. I just couldn’t face it.”

Willpower seems directly related to the person you want to be (Gwyneth Paltrow?), but you have to postpone the immediate gratification (butter pecan ice cream?) and visualize the improvement. Now that’s something I can do while I finish making the bed.

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