About 20 percent of New Year's resolutions get followed through. Who knows what the hit rate is for professional development goals – certainly not 100 percent. What helps in getting started and following through in personal development?
Ron Baumeister has been investigating what helps reinforce willpower over a range of research projects. He favours a ‘muscle’ analogy – the more you train the muscle the more it can lift. Similarly, the harder the muscle works the more tired and weak it gets.
Consider the typical American’s need to make 200 food decisions a day. Obviously the more she says ‘no’, the more tired that impulse management muscle is getting. The typical person has a lapse during the afternoon – saying yes to the chocolate bar, or cup-cake or bag of chips. That’s likely to be because the willpower has been weakened through over-use – saying ‘no’ all through the day.
The great news is that Baumeister has worked out a training regime for building mental muscle where it counts! The basic theme is to interrupt existing, especially impulsive behaviour patterns and to replace that with ongoing examples of deliberate control.
Some behavioural exercises that contribute to more general development of willpower:
- Brush teeth or open doors (or other simple tasks) with the non-dominant hand.
- Practice sitting or standing with an erect posture.
- Keep an ongoing diary of eating (or exercise, or spending or other target behaviours)
- Do a personal budget, or make a daily to-do list
- Changing speech patterns (stopping using ‘like’ and ‘totally’?)
Let’s borrow a little psychology here to make your self-improvement more successful.
1. Set few goals. Goals are a way of focusing your attention on your priorities, and giving them the energy they deserve. Too many goals means not enough energy focused on the priority.
2. Give yourself a running start. Build up your reserves of self-control with some practice of changing small existing habits (maybe saying ‘please’ and having a daily to-do list).
3. Talk to yourself. Start out loud, and then do it silently. Remind yourself what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going.
4. Keep a record. Have a notebook, a spreadsheet or similar hourly or daily diary of your behaviour, and of the results, such as your weight, or how happy you’re feeling.
5. Reward yourself. When you reach little milestones give yourself a meaningful reward, such as a break. There is evidence that glucose helps energise will-power – so your reward could be a barley sugar, a sweet drink or a piece of fruit.
6. Accept transgressions. Some days you won’t make it. Accept these as temporary lapses, for reasons not completely within your control, and limited to particular contexts. Make a plan to manage these next time (make sure there is no chocolate cake waiting to ambush you in the fridge).
A final point. Even if you are not terrifically conscientious, there is evidence that having a conscientious partner can help you keep up the healthy behaviours that lead to a lively and long life. This suggests that shared goals and action plans could be a good strategy for partners and friends.
Stewart Forsyth is an industrial psychologist and executive coach with a fascination for applying behavioural research to help individuals and organisations develop positive capability. He blogs at persona-plus.com/blog .