You were born with the wrong attitude. That’s why you never reach those goals you’ve set yourself. That’s why you can’t stick to that new diet, the new exercise regime or the budget plan.
Don’t feel insulted – because we’re all born with the wrong attitude. It’s in our genes. But don’t give up. The good news is that it’s fairly easy to evolve beyond that basic state and become a woman of superhuman self-control and willpower.
If you’ve ever been around a baby you’ll notice that they show no self-control at all. Far from it: they revel in their lack of self control, pooping, puking and bawling whenever and wherever they feel like it. It’s natural. But pretty soon children learn that they can’t throw the bowl of soup across the room if it’s not what they fancied for dinner. That’s self-control. They also soon figure out that if they keep calling out for mum or dad, eventually one of them will come to the cot. That’s willpower.
So if we, as humans, learn to use self-control and willpower, could it be something we can improve on? Yes, absolutely. According to research from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, it works just like your biceps or gluteus maximus – it’s a muscle you need to work on and grow.
Even better, when you work on that self-control you’ll see benefits in other parts of your life too. Researchers Dr Megan Oaten, PhD, and Ken Cheng found that when study participants undertook an exercise regime that required more willpower than usual, they also made more healthy-eating choices, smoked less, drank less alcohol and even studied more diligently.
Even more fascinating, when the researchers questioned whether exercise was the key in changing habits, they found it wasn’t, because students exhibited similar changes across their lifestyles when required to change things like their spending or studying habits. This means that, in theory, if you choose to create a new habit in one sphere of your life, the rest will be far easier.
Set some goals
To give yourself that willpower boost, it’s not enough to simply decide to start a new tougher exercise regime, because, unless you stick to that new regime, it won’t work. So come up with a new plan, by all means, but make sure it’s one that will be successful. To begin with, give yourself a big picture goal, like ‘Fit into size eight shorts by summer’ or ‘Run 10K by next Christmas.’
But don’t stop there. Think about why you want to reach that goal, which will help define what your goal really is. For example: if your goal is fitting into size eight shorts but your size is around 16 right now, your real goal is probably to look slimmer or be healthier. If you want to run a 10K, your real goal is probably to be fitter than you are, or to overcome what you see as an obstacle: your stamina. This is important because it helps you differentiate between what is fantasy (going from a size 16 to a size eight by summer) and what you’re actually capable of.
Research from the Journal of Personal Social Psychology shows that we’re far more likely to stick to something if there’s an expectation of success. So maybe you can reduce your lofty goal a little (size 12 instead of size eight) so it’s more achievable, which makes you more likely to succeed.
But don’t neglect the all important details. Give yourself a micro plan, with detailed goals achievable in short periods of time. So as well as ‘Lose 5lb by summer’ it could be ‘Eat no more than 1,800 calories Monday to Friday, and 2,000 on weekends.’ This kind of approach works in two ways. Firstly, you get to reach your goal every single day (by eating only 1,800 calories), and therefore every week, until you eventually reach that lofty goal of 5lb lost by summer.
Secondly, it allows you to fail but still be able to pick yourself right up again. In other words, if you slip on Monday and eat 2,000 calories, you can still succeed on Tuesday, Wednesday and so on. Focusing only on a long-term goal, like losing an amount of weight or fitting into a pair of jeans, for example, makes mini daily successes nigh on impossible.
Also, make your new plan easy to stick to. Don’t be afraid of reducing your calorie intake by just 100 or 200 calories. Reducing intake like this, rather than the more dramatic 300 or 500 drops in calories, means you’re far more likely to stick to your new plan. And, although you might want to see immediate results, losing weight gradually in that way means you’re far more likely to keep weight off once you lose it, since your new way of eating will be easier and, more importantly, it will have become a habit.
Similarly, if your plan is to sculpt yourself a great looking derriere, you’re far more likely to succeed if you plan to add just one glutes-focused exercise to your regular gym sessions, rather than several different exercises that can feel overwhelming, making you more likely to give up on it.
Make it a habit
Seriously, it won’t take long before that one extra exercise becomes a natural part of your regime, and then you have that magical thing called a habit.
Habits are hugely important to success in all spheres of life. As Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do.” So if you generously donate a large fee to a charity once in your life, it doesn’t necessarily make you a good person; but if you behave charitably on a regularly basis, it does. What you see when you look in the mirror and when you think about yourself as a person are a result of your habits. So to become the best person you can be, create new habits that sculpt and shape your body, boost your health and make you look and feel fabulous.
The great thing about routines is that once a behaviour becomes habitual, you don’t need much willpower, if any. Research published in the Journal of Personality found that once an activity became routine, participants found it easier to stick to. And that success then gives you the positive outlook that will feed your willpower in other areas of your life, be that your finances, your relationships, diet, health or beauty regime.
How long a habit takes to form depends on a variety of things – you, your personality and the habit you’re trying to make or break. But how habits form are the same for everyone. There’s a cue, the trigger that starts the behaviour, there’s the behaviour itself, and then there’s the reward. Once a behaviour becomes a habit it’s actually dealt with in a different part of the brain – the basal ganglia, rather than the prefrontal cortex, which is where decisions are made. So once a habit is formed, it’s almost beyond your control and a part of your natural being – it’s easy.
To break a habit, shattering those cues is key. You could try, for example, quitting smoking while on holiday, where your usual routine of coffee and a cigarette in the morning are broken. And to create a new habit, you need to create new cues. So if the new habit you want to create is to go for a short run every other morning, you could try going to bed with your jogging trousers on the night before, or setting your phone to go off with your favourite running tunes.
You’ve set the cue, you know what the behavior is, now to the reward. This needn’t be a ‘treat’ in the form of a chocolate bar or a spending spree at H&M, because it can be something as simple as putting a tick in the box next to ‘30 mins of exercise’ or ‘Ate seven portions of fruit and veg today.’ Satisfaction is what you’re looking for as your reward, and there’s plenty of that in striking something off your to-do list, right?
Finally, if you’re thinking about making a list of resolutions for New Year, forget it. Research shows that combining your goals like this almost always leads to failure. Why? Because by depriving yourself in one area, you actually require more self-control in other areas to succeed. Instead, focus all your willpower on one habit that you want to break or create, and the rest will follow. It’s really that easy.
Think outside the box, Tony Robbins once said: “If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Try mixing it up and find new things to ignite a fire under your fitness motivation.
Find health advice and more in every issue of TRAIN FOR HER magazine.