There are many guides on how to be more productive, manage time, and make major life changes, though despite all of these wonderful methods, it can be all too easy to slip back into old habits. This is because it’s not about finding the right technique or strategy, but is about having the willpower and self-control to follow through and do what needs to be done. The one simple key to having ultimate productivity is self-control! As I mentioned in my last post How to Take Your New Year’s Resolutions to the Limit, self-control is a life-long pursuit, and I want to offer more clarity on how to use willpower and self-control to help you have the most productive year yet. Making any major change, requires serious self-control; controlling what we pay attention to, what we think about, how we feel, and ultimately what we do. Developing willpower and self-control is a process and requires practice. When we are tempted by desires and unhealthy impulses we can learn to do what we know is in our best interest, as opposed to giving in to the immediate gratification. The book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGinigal, Ph.D., offers insight and application for enhancing our willpower and improving our self-control, which I will share below. Basically, self-control is about training and preparing our brain to deal with moments of desire, craving, and immediate gratification so we don’t give in. Two levels of our brain, what we’ll call the “high-road” (cerebral cortex) and “low-road” (limbic system), are often at odds, pulling us in contrary directions. The high-road is concerned with our future and long-term well-being, while the low-road is simply looking out for our immediate interest. The low-road is focused on pleasure and survival in the basic primitive sense. The low road is the base of our instinctual emotions, and responding to this can be helpful when we have to act quickly for our safety, or when we’re responding to basic survival instincts. But, it can have serious consequences when we act without thinking and our behavior is harmful to our long-term objectives. Fortunately, our brain has developed to allow us to think before we act. The high-road allows us to assess the situation, find the best options to solve our problem, and control our responses and behavior. We all have this capability! So, when it comes to improving our productivity and self-control, the key is to understand that temptation is natural, and with practice we can develop the self-control to stay on target.
How to exercise your self-control muscle:
Mediation enhances attention, patience, impulse control, and ultimately willpower and self-discipline. Meditation actually changes our brain to improve the functioning of the executive center, or prefrontal cortex, which improves our ability stay focused and resist impulses. Meditation also builds our self-awareness so we can be more watchful over our thinking, feelings, and behavior, and is a means to manage stress which is another building block of self-control. For details about how to mediate here is a post on 5 Simple Steps to Start Practicing Meditation.
When we’re dealing with stress and feeling overwhelmed it’s easier to give in to temptations and fall back into old familiar patterns. When stress strikes you may become more irritable, distracted, and negative, which shifts your brain into a reward-seeking state. Stress also drains our energy and depletes our mental faculties. What are your typical daily stressors to be aware of? What coping strategies can you use to neutralize these?
Get adequate sleep, relax, and have a healthy diet
According to Dr. McGonigal, self-control is like a muscle, it gets exhausted when we use it endlessly. Giving our brain the needed respite to rebound from a hard day’s work is crucial. Use deep breathing as a tool for relaxation and give yourself some down time. Yes in order to be more productive it will require you have interrupted time free from any work. As well, have a diet with food that gives you lasting energy and essential nutrition.
Learn your dopamine triggers
Our brain has learned to anticipate pleasurable experiences. This is why it’s so easy to chase satisfaction from ephemeral pleasures that don’t last. We turn to watching T.V., eating snack food, smoking cigarettes, and indulging in addictions, instead of staying on track with our self-improvement goals that will really offer us greater well-being. The key is to begin noticing when you have these false reward cravings, and to remove these cravings and prepare to stay strong. We can also learn to give ourselves more time and separate ourselves from the situation when these temptations emerge. Lastly, you can put your dopamine to work by pairing the stimuli that gets your dopamine firing with some unpleasant activity that you tend to procrastinate on.
Avoid the “what-the-hell-effect”
How many times have you resolved to give up an unhealthy habit only to lose ground and slowly fail at your attempt? How do you feel as this is taking place? Many people feel a sense of guilt and self-criticism that ultimately kills any minuscule amount of motivation remaining. When we feel hopeless, out of control, and guilty that we haven’t changed, it only increases our odds for failure. This is what’s called the “what-the-hell-effect.” You know how it goes. “Ah, what the hell, I already blew my work out routine for the last week, I might as well just forget about it.” The ability to forgive our mistakes and learn from our set-backs is what can increase our accountability. Recognize that you’re only human and don’t get caught up in the distress of making one mistake. The difference between a super productive person and someone who can’t seem to get unstuck is self-control and willpower. When we are in the moment, giving-in to our temptations can overwhelm what we know is in our best interest for the future. Willpower is a matter of choosing the difficult task that will get us ahead as opposed to the more fun and easy task that gives us pleasure in the moment. Be prepared to manage stress, be mindful of triggers, have some self-compassion, and stay healthy as you approach the New Year. Good luck with all of your endeavors! Photo credit: Perfecto Insecto