Did you know women overestimate their willpower?
I know it from first-hand experience.
How many times have you been in a conversation with a friend? Or with yourself? It starts something like “That’s it! Once and for all, I’m going to ___________.”
All is good and fine for a few hours, a few days, maybe even a few weeks. Then, whatever you were so fired up about becomes a mere distant memory.
What is it for you?
- That’s it, I’m going to start working out three times a week.
- That’s it, starting now, I am going to call my parents every week. After all, they won’t be here forever.
- That’s it, I’ve got to get this extra weight off.
- That’s it, I’m going to stop buying things I don’t need.
- That’s it, I’m going to get a handle on all of this clutter in my house.
- That’s it, I’m going limit myself to one glass of wine.
- That’s it, I’m going to stop yelling at my kids.
Can you relate to any of the above? What else would you add?
I’m intrigued every January. As a lifelong workout person, the gym looks a certain way February through December. Then in January, BAM!! The place is packed. These are all of the people who’ve said to themselves, “That’s it! I have to get a handle on my health.” By the end of January, things are pretty well settled back to pre-New Years’ Resolution status.
Most people (about 80%) do not make it to the end of January with their resolutions still intact.
WHAT is going on?
I decided to become yet another person to delve into the neuroscience of the brain. This is a brand new endeavor, and I’m eager to learn more. For now, I can share only the tip of the iceberg.
Which may be best. The tip of the iceberg of how our brain works.
An important part of our brain is called the Basal Ganglia. The Basal Ganglia is associated with a variety of functions. A few I’d like to mention for purposes of our discussion are habit learning, emotion and procedural learning. Hold that thought for a moment.
Another important part of our brain is called the Prefrontal Cortex. This is the management center of our brain. Our decision making, self-discipline and willpower are influenced by our Prefrontal Cortex, our frontal lobes.
I used to, in fact, talk about the frontal lobes of my kids’ brains while I was raising them. Since the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until we are in our 20s, young kids and teenagers don’t always think. They often take a big hit for this from their parents. Lots of intolerance.
There’s science behind this though. Bad decisions should be predictable, not a shock to parents.I used to say to my kids, “I understand why you did that. You have an underdeveloped frontal lobe in your brain which makes you impulsive and prone to peer pressure.”
This is true. Because I understood this, I was able to deliver consequences calmly. I was seldom ever mad at the kids. I understood. (and, yes, repeats of the same offense can be handled differently).
But what about us? We’re not teenagers.
What is our excuse for not demonstrating better self-discipline, willpower and decision making?
The Basal Ganglia (let’s call her BG) is a force.
This is the part of our brain that wants us to be happy and comfortable. When your 5:00 am alarm goes off, BG is right there telling you that you’d be happier and more content in this moment if you shut off your alarm, turned over, enjoyed your warm, cozy bed for a few more minutes, and caught yourself a few more minutes of sleep.
Or, when you’re facing a beautiful tray of caramel brownies at the office, BG says to you, “Go ahead and have one. You know you will love it. Life is short. You can start your no-sugar commitment tomorrow.”
BG also shows up in spades when you’re out with your friends, it’s time for another round, and your friends urge you, “Oh come on, you’re not driving. You work hard, and you deserve to cut back and relax.” BG agrees. You have your second glass of wine. And maybe your third. She doesn’t care about the consequence later; she wants you to be comfortable now, in this moment.
Do you see how often BG is showing up in your life? When you’re upset with your kids, it’s way easier to raise your voice than not. When you’re on Amazon to purchase something you need, of course other things pop up. BG is right there with you. “Go ahead, you’ll enjoy the convenience of that.”
But wait a minute!
What is going on in our management center? For most of us, our Prefrontal Cortex is unmanned. No one is there to help you walk away from the brownies, or maintain your calm, or get off Amazon with only what you need, or switch to club soda in place of that second (and third) glass of wine.
Why is BG so in your face? Why is our management center unmanned?
Human nature is such that our innate human tendencies, the ones that keep us happy and comfortable….well, that came with the original model! BG is standard feature. That’s YOU. But the Prefrontal Cortex? Unstsaffed. YOU have to make the decision to put someone in there.
The Prefrontal Cortex manager is an add on. An optional feature. Only you get to decide if you want to put someone there, helping you strengthen your willpower.
So, what can you do? Let’s talk about how you can take responsibility for your willpower.
Four Ways to Staff Your Prefrontal Cortex for Heightened Willpower.
1. Decide to put a manager in your prefrontal cortex.
Of course, this is a symbolic. I need someone in there who I can talk to. I need to give her a pep talk to make sure she’s giving me a pep talk. I want to hear from her! “Okay, Aleta, we have an agreement. You are waking up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:00 for your 5:30 am workout. Don’t let me down. Don’t make me write you up.” Okay, I’m kidding on that last part.
2. Give your manager a name.
She needs to be a real person. She needs to be someone you can talk to.
Okay in full disclosure, I haven’t hired my manager yet. As I was writing this blog, I talked with two girlfriends about her. As I sat eating cheese and crackers, we were all aware the sooner I get her in there, the better I’ll be. You see, I didn’t want to eat the cheese and crackers.
We’ve narrowed her down to Betty (my girlfriend’s very feisty mom who has been inspiring us from heaven for years), Helen, Hazel or Eleanor. I’m pondering.
3. Get some things straight with her.
Be crystal clear about what you need help with.The nighe
- I don’t want to eat sugar Monday through Friday.
- I want to wake up at 5:00 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to get to the gym.
- I need to remain calm when I feel stress coming on.
- I want to stop after one glass of wine.
- I’m not going to buy anything I can’t pay for with cash.
You have to know what you are striving for. Be clear about your goals. Know the habits you are trying to lock into your Basal Ganglia.
22 years ago, I bought a house six blocks away from a beloved neighborhood frozen custard restaurant. I put a stake in the ground. “I am not going to eat frozen custard. Ever. Period.”
For some miraculous reason, that habit was locked in. I have likely had five bites of frozen custard in 22 years.But what about the rest? For the life of me, I can’t exercise that level of discipline in so many other places.
I have a number of habits that I need to lock in just like that to help ensure I will be healthy and vibrant when I am in my 60s, 70s and 80s. How about you?
The first step: know exactly what you want to commit to.
Write these commitments down, and share them with your prefrontal cortex manager.
4. Talk to her, proactively.
What does this mean?
It means that you are going to pre-decide when you are facing a potential temptation.
- The night before: “Okay, Hazel, when my alarm goes off in the morning, I expect some help getting up!!”
- On your way to the party: “Helen, when we get to this gathering, remind me I want to stick with vegetables. Keep me away from the cheese and crackers. Oh!… and the brownies, too!”
- Just before the kids get home: “Eleanor, please help me be calm each day when the kids get home from school, especially when I have things on my mind from work.”
- On your way for a girls’ night out: “Betty, if I’ve got my eyes on a second glass of wine, please remind me that I want to stop at one glass so I can get a good night’s sleep.”
This may sound a bit hokey, but it’s about being intentional.
Imagine her sitting on your shoulder, talking right into your ear.
As you fight each day to have stronger willpower for the things that matter to you, keep in mind that you’ve got a strong, ever-present Basal Gaglia, BG, who wants you to have everything you want. Call upon your new manager to talk you into doing the things you are trying to commit to.
More willpower ultimately equals better success which equals better results which equals greater happiness and confidence.
Get that manager in place.
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