You Won’t Stick To Your Diet - Unless You Know These 3 Facts About Willpower

Most of our New Year’s resolutions have one thing in common: resisting temptation.  Trying to ignore the powerful allure of the forbidden cigarette, doughnut, or latest budget-blowing buying impulse requires willpower.  You might expect very successful people, who presumably have boatloads of willpower, to be particularly good at not giving in.  But if anything, they seem to be even more susceptible to temptation than the rest of us.   Quick – name a famous or powerful person that doesn’t have a well-known weakness for something.   I’ll wait.

Having the willpower to govern a country, yet lacking the willpower to resist cigarettes or french fries may seem like a contradiction, but it actually isn’t, according to research on the nature of self-control.  So if you want this to be the year that you finally stop smoking, slim down, or stick to your budget, it’s a good idea to start by understanding how willpower really works.

Your capacity for self-control is not unlike the muscles in your body.   Like biceps or triceps, willpower can vary in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Just as well-developed biceps sometimes get tired and jelly-like after a strenuous workout, so too does your willpower “muscle.”

Even everyday actions like decision-making or trying to make a good impression can sap this valuable resource, as can coping with the stresses of your career and family.  When you tax it too much at once, or for too long, the well of self-control strength runs dry.   It is in these moments that the doughnut wins.

So the first thing you are going to want to do, if you are serious about resisting temptation, is make peace with the fact that your willpower is limited.  If you’ve spent all your self-control handling stresses at work, you will not have much left at the end of the day for sticking to your resolutions.  Think about when you are most likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep yourself out of harm’s way.  Be prepared with an alternate activity or a low-calorie snack, whichever applies.

Also, don’t try to pursue two goals at once that each require a lot of self-control if you can help it.  This is really just asking for trouble. For example, studies show that people who try to quit smoking while dieting, in order to avoid the temporary weight gain that often accompanies smoking cessation, are more likely to fail at both enterprises than people who tackle them one at a time.

The good news is, willpower depletion is only temporary.  Give your muscle time to bounce back, and you’ll be back in fighting form and ready to say “no” to any doughnuts that come your way.  When rest is not an option, recent research shows that you can actually speed up your self-control recovery, or give it a boost when reserves are low, simply by thinking about people you know who have lot of self-control.   (Thinking about my impossibly self-possessed mother does wonders for me when I’m about to fall off the no-cheesecake wagon.)

Or, you can try giving yourself a pick-me-up.  I don’t mean a cocktail – I mean something that puts you in a good mood.  (Again, not a cocktail – it may be mood-enhancing, but alcohol is definitely not willpower-enhancing).    Anything that lifts your spirits should also help restore your self-control strength when you’re looking for a quick fix.

The other way in which willpower is like a muscle (and the really great news for those of us trying to lose a few pounds) is that it can be made stronger over time, if you give it regular workouts.  Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating – or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it – can strengthen your capacity for self-control.  For example, in one study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months not only got physically healthier, but also smoked fewer cigarettes, drank less alcohol, and ate less junk food.  They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to spend money impulsively.  They didn’t leave their dishes in the sink, didn’t put things off until later, and missed fewer appointments. In fact, every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower improved dramatically.

So if you want to build more willpower, start by picking an activity (or avoiding one) that fits with your life and your goals – anything that requires you to override an impulse or desire again and again, and add this activity to your daily routine.  It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier over time if you hang in there, because your capacity for self-control will grow.

Armed with an understanding of how willpower works, and how you can get your hands on some more of it, there’s no reason why this can’t be the year that you cross those troublesome resolutions off your list for good.

(For more on tips on building willpower and resisting temptation, check out my new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals)

Five Ways to Increase Your Productivity

From HRM Today

You just have too much on you plate.  Chances are, your employees do as well.  You suspect that you could all be making better use of your time, completing more projects and achieving more goals.  You want to be more productive, and to help your team be more productive, but you aren’t sure where to start.

You are far from alone in your confusion. Even the most successful, highly accomplished people have difficulty pinpointing why they are so productive.  The intuitive answer – that you are born predisposed to having the intelligence, creativity, and willpower to get the job done – is really just one small piece of the puzzle.  In fact, decades of research on achievement suggests that successful people reach more of their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do.   Here are five scientifically-tested strategies that successful people use, proven to help you reach your goals and make the most of your time.


#1   Get Specific. When setting a goal, try to be as specific as possible.  “Meet with every member of my team once a week” is a better goal than “meet more often with my team,” because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like.  Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there.  Also, think about the specific actions that need to be taken to reach your goal.  Just promising you’ll “communicate more” is too vague – be clear and precise.  “At our meeting, I’ll ask about each project they are currently working on” leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you’ve actually done it.


#2 Seize the Moment to Act on Your Goals. Given how busy most of us are, it’s not surprising that we often miss opportunities to act on a goal because we simply fail to notice those opportunities.  Did you really have no time to work on that assignment today?  No chance at any point to return that phone call?  Achieving your goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.

To seize the moment, decide when and where you will take each action you want to take, in advance.  Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., “When it’s 3pm today, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that report.”) Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your productivity by roughly 300%.


#3  Know Exactly How Far You Have Left To Go. Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress - if no one else is looking over your shoulder, then you’ll need to monitor yourself.  If you don’t know how well you are doing, you can’t adjust your behavior or your strategies accordingly.  Check your progress frequently – weekly, or even daily, depending on the goal.


#4  Be a Realistic Optimist. Believing in your ability to succeed is enormously helpful for creating and sustaining your motivation.  But whatever you do, don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to reach your goal or complete your project.  Studies show that thinking things will come to you easily and effortlessly leaves you unprepared for the journey ahead, and significantly increases the odds of failure.   Express confidence in your employees, while always being honest with them about the challenges they’ll face.


#5  Focus on Getting Better, Rather than Being Good. Believing you have the ability to reach your goals is important, but so is believing you can get the ability.   Many of us believe that our intelligence, our personality, and our physical aptitudes are fixed – that no matter what we do, we won’t improve.  As a result, we focus on goals that are all about proving ourselves, rather than developing and acquiring new skills.

Fortunately, decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong – abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable. Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices, and reach your fullest potential.  People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.   And telling your employees that you expect them to make a few mistakes as they learn is, ironically, the surest way to elicit their very best performance.



Want to Double or Triple Your Own Productivity? Here's How.

From my Fast Company blog:

Very few of us are as productive as we could be. We want to be focused with laser-like precision on critical tasks and make the best, most efficient use of our time.  Instead, we get distracted by coworkers, lost in our Inboxes, and too absorbed by unimportant aspects of a single project when we’d be better off turning our attention to other things.

Wanting to be more productive isn’t enough to actually make you more productive.  You need to find a way to deal effectively with the distractions, the interruptions, and the fact that there is just way too much on your plate.   Fortunately, there is a very simple strategy that has been proven to do the trick.

If you’ve already read my book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, then know that I am a big fan of planning.  If-then planning, in particular, is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal.  Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.  Making if-then plans to tackle your current projects, or reach your 2011 goals, is probably the most effective single thing you can do to ensure your success.

If-then plans take the form:

If X happens, then I will do Y.

For example:

If I haven’t written the report before lunch, then I will make it my top priority when I return.

If I am getting too distracted by colleagues, then I will stick to a 5 minute chat limit and head back to work.

If it is 2pm, then I will spend an hour reading and responding to important emails.

How effective are these plans? One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers.  Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”) The results were dramatic:  months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of non-planners!

A recent review of results from 94 studies that used the if-then technique found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, including monthly breast self-examination, test preparation, using public transportation instead of driving, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, not drinking alcohol, not starting smoking, losing weight, recycling, negotiating fairly, avoiding stereotypic and prejudicial thoughts, and better time management.

Why are these plans so effective?  Because they are written in the language of your brain – the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness.

Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan.  This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4pm!  I’d better return those calls”), even when you are busy doing other things.

Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating what you should do next.  (Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan.  The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)

So if you are finding, day after day, that too many important tasks have gone unaccomplished, and you are looking for a way to introduce better habits of time management into your life, look no further:  try making a simple plan.  By starting each morning making if-thens to tackle the day’s challenges, you won’t actually be adding hours to your day, but it will certainly seem like you did.