Assume you have no will power
Assuming you have no will power is not a bad place to start if you want to change some aspect of your life. We tend to think that if we can’t change something then its because we don’t have enough will power. But in reality will power only plays a small part in any psychological change.
The common problems (blamed on a lack of will power) people claim they would like to change are the addictions, smoking, alcohol and drugs. But I can also add things that look and act like addictions, but are not so obviously harmful to you, like overwork, chronic selflessness, being excessively emotional, worry, health anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, the spectrum of anxiety disorders and of course depressive thinking.
I have called these common life sapping processes pseudo addictions as they have many of the qualities of an addiction. Firstly, you can’t stop doing them, and secondly they tend to get worse over time and thirdly they soak up more and more of your time and effort. So they behave a lot like addiction.
Several years ago I had a quiet New Year’s Eve because I was booked to appear on BBC radio on New Year’s morning. I talked about how to keep New Years Resolutions. Many of us make resolutions but only about 28% of us manage to keep them for more than about 30 days. The most usual excuse for failing to keep a New Years resolution is lack of will power. To all intents and purposes, making a resolution is the same as making a goal and I am a fan of good goals.
The beauty of good well thought out goals is that they remove a lot of the need for will power. And just to let you into a little secret; non of us have much will power and we use it up over the day until we have little left by bed time. So using will power to change your life is almost always doomed to failure.
So what is it that makes goals and resolutions so hard to keep? Research carried out by Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire has shown that the way we go about making and then implementing goals is the problem.
People who manage to keep goals go about things differently from those who do not manage to keep their goals. I have made the positive factors into a neat list of 5 do’s and the unhelpful factors into a list of 5 don’ts.
1. Make a step by step plan
2. Tell others about your goals
3. Think about good things that will happen if you achieve your goals
4. Reward yourself for making progress towards your goals
5. Record progress in a journal
1. Motivate yourself by focusing on a role model
2. Think about bad things that will happen if you don’t achieve your goal
3. Try to suppress unhelpful thoughts
4. Rely on will power
5. Fantasize how good life will be when you achieve your goal.
Finally, what can you do to make the overall environment you live in work to your advantage. By environment I mean your work, home or leisure contexts and generally the places you spend time in. Let me use the example of wanting to quit smoking. If you still go to the same places and do the same things while you are in the early stages of trying to quit then all of the habitual associations found in those places will work against you. Will you go to the same place you have your first cigarette of the day and expect to use only will power to overcome the cravings? If so you are setting things badly against yourself.
Now let’s look at a pseudo addiction. A good one to consider is worry. Worry is very common and a completely useless activity. A bit like an addition really!
Worry has some characteristics that make it hard to shake off, again like an addiction. So let’s look at similarities.
5 Ways that worry looks like an addiction
- Both are hard to stop
- Both Require more and more from you
- Both make it hard to sleep
- In both Your mind is always trying to find a fix; for fix read solution
- In both a part of you wants to do it
How to break a pseudo addiction like worry
- The first step in breaking any addiction is own the problem. You must acknowledge the fact that you have the addiction this is true in drugs and in worry also.
- The second step is to bring awareness to the craving to use the drug or the worry process. Become aware of the actual automatic process that drives the unthinking behaviour.
- Put in place an alternative that you can use in the precise moment of craving. When you want to start worrying you must have a new activity that captures your attention and diverts you from the well worn path of worry. So DO something different. Do the same get the same, do something different and open yourself to knew possibilities.
- Record your progress. Recognize that changing a habit is hard and sometimes you will fail and sometimes you will succeed. It is important to hold yourself accountable. What gets measured gets managed.
- Be kind to yourself. Accept the process is a journey. By this I mean if you fail on one occasion don’t use that as an excuse to give up altogether. Anything worth doing takes time and effort.
Eventually, you can to create new routines of thought and action that the worry process declines bit by bit and you become worry free. So start with a simple and clear set of goals.
- Make a plan to change your pseudo addiction
- Share your goal with a trusted helper who will support you when you need it.
- Think about how much better life will be when you are free of your pseudo addiction.
- Record your progress and reward you progress. Little rewards are a great re-conditioning tool. The more you reward yourself the stronger the new habit becomes.
- Keep a chart, graph or journal of your successes. I often ask clients to records five examples of succeeding in changing a behaviour or thought pattern. Keep track of things really works.
Use all the tools at your disposal, that way you have a chance of not being the 78% of people who fall when keeping to a goal gets tough.