Remember how you felt when lockdown began? Shocked, no doubt, but determined to exercise regularly, eat well, and perhaps learn a new skill.
By now, however, that initial resolve may have slipped, and it might seem as if your supply of motivation to do the “right” thing, as well as the willpower to resist just sitting back, have both disappeared.
Some psychologists would support your view. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University and New York Times journalist John Tierney, in their 2011 book Willpower, argue for the “ego depletion theory” – the idea that an individual’s supply of willpower is limited, so if you’re subjected to situations demanding persistent effort, you’ll find it hard after a time to summon up the willpower to keep going.
Others, however, disagree – myself among them. Carol Dweck at Stanford, Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and their teams have shown the key to predicting sustained performance is not the amount of willpower required, but rather how you regard willpower. Those who think it’s a limited resource will perform less well over time on demanding tasks, whereas those who are convinced willpower is an unlimited resource will stick to their goals, maintain energy and resolve, and do well. You still have the willpower necessary to achieve your aims. You just have to find it again.
Here are some tips to help you:
How clear is your goal?
If you tell yourself to “eat well”, or “stay fit”, it’s hard to know when you’ve done enough. Redefine your aims so they’re measurable; e.g., “eat six portions of fruit and vegetables every day”, or “cover 10,000 steps each day”.
Who are you trying to please?
Edward Deci at the University of Rochester suggests we subdivide motivation into extrinsic and intrinsic. When you’re extrinsically motivated, you’re working to gain approval outside yourself – e.g., you clean your home to please someone else, or exercise to achieve a body shape others will envy.
When you’re intrinsically motivated, on the other hand, you pursue an activity for your own satisfaction – you clean the house because it helps you feel organised; you exercise because it makes you feel good. Deci found extrinsic motivation can help get you started, but to keep going you’ll need intrinsic motivation. Either find a personally meaningful reason to keep going, or discard that goal.
Schedule time to pursue your goal every day
One of the best ways to ensure you’ll have time to work towards your goal is to set aside five minutes as soon as you wake to plan how you’ll achieve measurable progress that day. Write down your plan and post it somewhere obvious.
Ask your partner or a friend to work with you so you can encourage each other, or set up a virtual support group. Effort is easier to sustain when you give and receive encouragement.
Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of Siblings: How to Handle Rivalry and Create Lifelong Loving Bonds.
The Daily Telegraph
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