Think of the last time you struggled to focus on a boring or difficult task. Your wandering attention probably felt like it was outside your control, as if you suddenly lost the ability to focus and didn’t know how to regain it. We all feel that way sometimes.
Even in those moments, when you feel like you’re fighting against your own instincts, you can stop procrastinating and get focused. You just need to recharge your willpower.
“Willpower gives you the energy and endurance to deal with challenges, the ability to persevere in the face of setbacks, and the strength to tolerate conflict or stress that might otherwise make us run away from goals or projects we care about,” says Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct (Avery, 2011).
Your willpower works like a muscle – it needs to be trained, developed, and maintained. “A lot of people will tell me they have no willpower,” McGonigal says. “But nothing I’ve come across suggests a willpower gene.”
Anyone can learn to improve their willpower, so here are five tips to get you started:
1. Remember your goals. If your willpower feels drained, think of the task at hand as a necessary stepping stone to help you achieve your goals. “Willpower is very easily depleted if it’s disconnected from your values and goals,” McGonigal says.
For example, if you dislike invoicing, then viewing it as an isolated task will make it hard to muster the energy to do it. If you recast it as one of the many ways you build a thriving business, then the passion you feel for your business will help motivate you to focus on – and even enjoy – the invoicing.
2. Practice coping with stress. When you’re working toward a goal, you are bound to hit tough times. To reach ambitious goals, you need to persist in stressful conditions, even when anxiety, fear, or even boredom threaten to sap your willpower.
Mindfulness helps you cope with stress and strengthen willpower. Try mindfulness meditation, or better yet, do hot yoga to learn to stay with discomfort and find some serenity within it. “It’s almost like a willpower workout,” McGonigal says.
3. Forgive your mistakes. You are bound to make mistakes, but your willpower will be stronger if you take those errors in stride. “Forgiving yourself for your mistakes increases motivation and engagement with goals,” McGonigal says.
Treat your own failure with the kindness you’d offer a friend, but note the ways that you can do a better job next time. “That’s very different than the usual self-criticism or ego-boosting,” McGonigal says. It allows you to bounce back and grow at the same time.
4. Connect with colleagues. Willpower naturally rises when we feel recognised and appreciated for our work. “We think of willpower as being so tough and individual, but the more connected people feel, the more willpower they have,” McGonigal says.
When you feel unmotivated or distracted, go talk to a co-worker or invite your colleagues to lunch. The simple pleasure of working with people you care about toward a common goal is a surprisingly effective way to restore your willpower.
5. Trust that it will get easier. We often struggle to stay engaged during difficult tasks because we imagine, sometimes unconsciously, that they will continue to be just as hard in the future. We feel defeated or hopeless and give up.
To combat that feeling, remember that your skill improves with practice. “Appreciate that a task is difficult but don’t tell yourself the story that it’s always going to be difficult,” McGonigal says. Most likely, the task will be a little bit easier every time you try it.