What exactly is willpower and how do you sustain it?

Psychologist Frank Ryan says developing willpower entails making lifestyle changes

Willpower can be developed but entails not just learning new ways of coping with temptation but also making lifestyle changes.

Willpower can be developed but entails not just learning new ways of coping with temptation but also making lifestyle changes.

 

This week the healthy town project has been focusing on breaking bad habits, but how do you break a bad habit? Give up smoking? Cut down on drinking? Or start taking regular exercise?

If you decide to embark on any of these life-altering paths, you will need willpower. But what exactly is willpower? Can you develop it? And more importantly can you sustain it?

Psychologist Frank Ryan who has written a book on the subject certainly believes so.

Willpower can be developed but entails not just learning new ways of coping with temptation but also making lifestyle changes, he says.

“The best approach to boosting your willpower is to break it down into its core components, the “nuts and bolts” of willpower,” says Ryan.

He says a very important component is what psychologists call working memory, what is currently in your conscious mind. “This guides your behaviour and directs your attention moment by moment. If you keep your goal in mind- being single minded with regard to what you need willpower to achieve- you are less likely to be lured away from it,” he says.

Ryan says distraction is the “biggest enemy” of willpower, “so anything that focuses your mind supports your willpower’’.

Ryan says another approach is to practise small acts of self-control such as sitting up straight, or (if you can bear it!) not checking your smart phone or Facebook every minute or so.

“Research findings suggest this trains your willpower in two possible ways. First, the brain circuits that stop or inhibit actions might strengthen; second, your confidence or self-belief in willpower is increased. This makes it more likely you will persevere with effort with bigger challenges like quitting smoking.”

Ryan, whose book Willpower for Dummies was recently published, says one of the most common reasons willpower fails is we momentarily forget our goals, perhaps because we are distracted. “Keeping the long term goal and associated benefits in mind switches your attention away from the immediate gratification,” he says.

Ryan says willpower can also be boosted by commitment in advance, or pre-commitment, as he calls it. “Booking a few training sessions in the gym in advance, or just placing your training kit by the front door so you can’t miss it, are examples.”

He points out that in both cases you have to do something that requires effort or willpower ie cancelling a gym session or moving your bag to avoid pursuing your goal of fitness.

Ultimately, he says, willpower is the capacity for self –determination.

*Born in Cork, Frank Ryan studied at University College Cork and Edinburgh University. He is a consultant clinical psychologist in Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust in London, and an honorary senior lecturer in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College. He is also a practising cognitive therapist and an active trainer, lecturer and researcher. His book which was published recently examines the issue of willpower and contains dozens of useful tips on developing and retaining it, is published by Wiley.

Tomorrow: Five tips for boosting your willpower.