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Willpower on demand

We’ve all got plenty of self-control. Reclaim yours with these simple tips

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We know you lash yourself mentally time and time again. For eating that Skor bar on your coffee break. For tipping back those two extra glasses of chardonnay last night. For not saddling up for that Saturday morning spinning class. If only you had more willpower, you think, you would quit all your nasty habits and live up to your perfect idea of a super-healthy, super-successful superwoman.

Well, the measure of a woman is not the amount of willpower she has. Most experts actually loathe the word willpower because of the moral overtones associated with having none. The cultural stigma of being “powerless” over mastering impulses implies – unfairly – that people are weak, says Dr. Ian Nicholson, chair of professional affairs at the Ottawa-based Canadian Psychological Association. And our celebrity-obsessed culture doesn’t help: take yummy mummies Kate Hudson and Denise Richards, both starlet mothers lauded for shedding their baby weight virtually overnight.

In fact, the best way to nurture your personal resolve is to stop beating yourself up over not having enough. Our perceived lack of willpower – which feeds into Canada’s $45 billion a year beauty and diet industries, to cite but two examples – can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re so hard on ourselves about minor lapses in resolve that we end up thinking we have none in the first place. And that becomes an easy excuse to avoid changing bad habits or taking on any challenging health goals (will you be wearing a bikini or a one-piece and wrap this bathing suit season?).

The truth is, willpower is not an inherent capacity you either have or don’t have – it is a set of skills you can develop and put into practice whenever you want, according to Dr. Nicholson. And while genetics and life experience can influence those skills (think of families with two or more overachievers), they don’t define them, says Jana Hyer Davies, a registered psychologist in Red Deer, Alta. Here are a bunch of simple boosts that will help you reclaim a lifetime reserve of self-control.

Maybe you’ve failed diet after diet, but you have managed to finish your MBA while parenting an energetic toddler. “People don’t recognize the self-control they already own in other aspects of their lives,” says Dr. Nicholson. It’s because many of us overemphasize our failures and underemphasize our successes. Rather than letting your failures loom large, think through your life to find areas where you’ve successfully used will-power, and continually remind yourself of those successes whenever you criticize yourself. Try these tips, too.

Accept your weakness, then be positive. Coeur Birmingham, a 33-year-old Calgary-based administrative assistant, knew she was a worrywart. So, over the year she tried to get pregnant, she simply focused on not letting herself slip into a negative funk at the arrival of another period. Now that she’s expecting, she stays positive by remembering not to fret over every cramp and strange feeling. “Every day I remind myself of my end goals of having a healthy baby and enjoying this pregnancy.”

Handle one problem at a time. Vowing an oath of exercise, and quitting smoking and Smarties, can be too much to handle, according to a recent study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviours. Researchers believe willpower is a finite “personal resource” and tapping into it for more than one change at a time can render it ineffective.

There are three areas of your life that can quickly bog down your personal resolve: your physical health, your environment and your self-esteem. For example, if you’re tired or hungry, you may give in to unhealthy wants and habits more than usual, such as biting your nails, to help soothe the pain of that stressful sales meeting. Or your self-control can easily be worn down by environmental factors – for example, if you’re used to smoking when you have a coffee. Finally, if you’ve convinced yourself you’re a weak person, you’re far more likely to give in to your impulses. So the next time you need to unleash some inner resolve, keep the following in mind.

Ask yourself three questions. Am I feeling emotionally and physically exhausted? Has something occurred recently around me or in my life that’s driving this impulse? And am I giving myself permission to give in because I feel incapable of saying no rather than because I simply want to treat myself? If you answer yes to any of these questions, try to recognize you’re in a vulnerable state or situation. Knowing this, you may be able to control your impulse with a lot more confidence.

Don’t waste your willpower if you’re not ready for change. Self-control is a skill that takes patience, work and effort – especially when you’re trying to make a major life change, such as reining in your spending or controlling your anger. To ensure you’re truly and honestly ready for a change, write down the sacrifices or adjustments that are needed to make it happen. For example, if you’re trying to control your angry outbursts, make a list of the possible triggers and decide what compromises you need to make; the next time you feel your temper flaring, you won’t react to those feelings. Then review the list: you may find you’re not yet willing, or able, to make the changes – and you’ll only end up abusing your sense of willpower in the process.

Some people think, If I had true willpower, I could survive any situation. In fact, the opposite is true, says Wayne Skinner, a clinical director at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction & Mental Health. You’ll have a much better chance of staying strong in vulnerable situations if you simply try to escape or avoid them in the first place.

Lean on others. As a self-confessed Cadbury chocolate addict, Grace Gerry, 48, says she is motivated by leading eating-habits groups – Weight Loss and Emotional Clutter in Victoria – which grapple with emotional issues connected with eating. A close friend or family member can also be supportive when you’re thinking of taking on a big change.

“People who engage in all-or-none thinking are prone to giving up and saying they lack willpower,” says Wendy Froberg, a Calgary-based registered psychologist. This type of negative thinking can thwart willpower because you end up blaming yourself instead of addressing the real issue behind a minor slip-up. It may also prevent you from putting together a realistic plan for returning to that willpower goal. “We don’t become better through punishing or negative self-judgment,” says Froberg.

Learn from your slips. Maybe you realized that when you miss your regular afternoon fruit-and-yogurt snack, you’re more likely to order a double-pepperoni-and-cheese pizza when you get home. The lesson? Find ways to act on impulses that don’t create guilt.

Remember your end goal. For Birmingham, staying mentally positive means keeping an eye on the prize. “With this baby coming, every day there’s a moment when I remind myself of my end goals, whether it’s managing my stress or choosing between a piece of fruit or a sweet,” she says. Staying focused will help you reach the finish line.

Turns out Cindy Klassen, Canada’s golden girl and winner of five medals at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, is just as susceptible to Bernard Callebaut chocolates and crashing on the couch as the rest of us. But in her case, her self-control is her business, and she relies on it to keep her in shape for her next speed skating competition. So how does she maintain her willpower?

• She doesn’t worry about how much willpower she has. Klassen knows slacking off means disappointing herself, but she doesn’t beat herself up about having a lack of willpower. “If one day I ease off on training, the next day I’m going to feel pretty bad about it because I’m not doing the best I can to achieve my goals.”

• She envisions reaching an all-encompassing goal: for her, the perfect race. “Just thinking about what you’re working toward helps a lot,” she says.

• She puts herself on autopilot. Now that Klassen’s reached her dreams, will she have trouble mustering her willpower? “No, because once you get into a routine, these lifestyle changes become habit,” she says.