How Women Can Find More Willpower

In western society it’s very common for women to take on the majority of the daily decisions regarding management of the house and family life. Taken individually these are typically minor decisions, but there are a lot of them, so collectively the load can be significant. Even when there are no children, women still tend to take responsibility for most decisions in these areas which impacts our willpower.

As an example, consider house cleaning.  Even if this responsibility is outsourced to a cleaning service, the female of the household may be responsible for scheduling the service, ensuring that there is cleaning product available, and tidying the house up beforehand (because she knows the house has to be neat to get a better cleaning). Emma, a French comic artist, did a wonderful illustration of this exact issue here () (check it out later, you’ll want to keep reading).

Maybe women often handle these responsibilities because we’re particular and want it done our way, or perhaps we find it easier to just do it ourselves rather than explaining to our partners what needs to be done and how we’d like it done.  Regardless of the reason, the price that is paid for this near constant decision making is energy, energy that might be used toward more productive ends elsewhere in our lives.

Finding the Willpower to Build New Good Habits

So, what does this have to do with willpower?  Let’s say that you’re the typical woman described above and, as a result, you’re often distracted and tired.  If, for example, you’re also interested in starting a new self-care routine (exercise, eating differently, etc.), you will likely need to draw upon willpower to help you succeed.

But, what exactly is willpower?

Willpower is defined as the control exerted by the mind to do something or restrain impulses, to help us kick bad habits and to build new ones.

It used to be thought that willpower was a limited resource, and that it was important to reserve it for when it was needed. This idea was primarily based upon a study by psychologist Roy Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University in the 1990’s.

But now psychologists are finding that willpower is not a finite resource, but rather something that needs to be cultivated or built up, sort of like a muscle.

Starting a new good habit (which is the flip side of kicking a bad habit) takes more energy than an ingrained habit that is already second nature. It often takes more energy for us to remember to do this new thing and to motivate ourselves to start doing it, then to actually do it.

What hope is there then of building great new self-care habits if your energy is already depleted by minor decisions and household tasks before you even get started?

Build Up Your Reserve of Willpower

The first key to successfully starting (and keeping) a new habit is to better understand willpower and to methodically built it up. Kelly McGonigal, who wrote “The Willpower Instinct”, explains the challenges with willpower and more importantly, how we can develop more of it.

  1. Our brain systems have competing interests:
    • We have an older, reptilian brain system (amygdala) that is responsible for our instinct for fight versus flight (even in situations that no longer need that extreme response). It wants us to feel good and be safe now and doesn’t consider our long-term best interests.
    • The other brain system is the newer system (prefrontal cortex), which is more intellectual, creative, and has the ability to plan for the long-term. This part of our brains knows that being healthy is good and will help us remain calm in the face of our daily stress.
  2. When one brain system is turned on, for all intents and purposes the other is turned off. The older reptilian brain system overpowers any competing system when we are tired, stressed, or otherwise not at our healthy best. This is why you may make a completely different decision around healthy food choices depending on your energy level.

The willpower energy is more available to us when our prefrontal cortex is turned on because it helps us make good decisions that serve our best interest for the longer term.  Therefore, to have more available willpower, the basics required are sleep, meditation, physical exercise, and according to this study, a low-glycemic diet.

If you want to really cultivate your willpower to turn it into successful and meaningful change, there are a few more steps that you can take:

  1. You need to believe that you are the type of person that does the desired behavior.

It’s not enough to say that you want to work out 5 days a week. You must believe that you are the type of person that works out 5 days a week. Even if you don’t entirely believe it in the beginning, you can trick your brain. To do this, try writing this statement down and repeating it daily:

I am the type of person that __________.  (example: goes to the gym 5 days a week).  I am __________. (example: athletic and healthy).

  1. Don’t guilt or shame yourself.

This isn’t a sustainable model for building relationships with others, so don’t do it to yourself. Besides, according to The Willpower Instinct (http://kellymcgonigal.com/books/):

Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.

Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.

So, if you’re used to thinking that guilt equals motivation (which I often hear), not true! Self forgiveness, not guilt, increases personal accountability.

  1. Predict Failure.

Identifying the possible ways that you might fail at a goal or habit and then making a plan for what you’ll do when that failure occurs will increase your success rate. For example, if you have to work late and can’t go to the gym right after work, put on your workout clothes and at least walk around the block. This practice not only builds your practice but helps you be clear on your recovery methods when hurdles and failure inevitably occur.

Delegate Decisions to Lessen the Load

The second key to successfully starting (and keeping) a new habit is to stop wasting time and energy with minor decisions and tasks.  Women who are doing double-duty with work and family/household management should consider some serious delegation and process structure. You need to be conscious of what you take on and perhaps even lower your household standards (the house really doesn’t have to be that clean all of the time). A few questions to consider:

  • What can you delegate or outsource? (And not manage at all!)
  • What do you need to fully let go of? What is simply not that necessary?
  • What can you decide once and forget or automate? (bills, grocery lists, work uniform?)

Want a partner to help you increase your willpower? Do you need help delegating and reducing your decision? If so, I’m here for you.