“Willpower isn’t something that gets handed out to some and not to others. It is a skill you can develop through understanding and practice.” -Gillian Riley
The old and played out stereotype of addicts used to be clear: If you’re addicted to drugs and alcohol, then you’re inherently a weak person. That used to be the standard judgment for the case of addiction. It’s not anymore.
Ever since alcoholism was classified as a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, research has continued to prove that it has nothing to do with a person’s lack of willpower. Addiction is now generally attributed to a genetic susceptibility rather than a choice. Factors such as depression, self-esteem, and environment also contribute to the development of the condition.
In my case, I can attest to the fact that my low self-esteem played a big part in my downward spiral into addiction. It started at age nine with alcohol, marijuana at 13 and meth shortly thereafter. After almost a decade of substance abuse, I finally got the wake-up call I needed in the form of a jail sentence. My drug-related charges had me spend two years in jail.
When I got out, my willpower was at an all-time high. I was ready to start over with a blank slate. I learned the hard way that willpower isn’t enough to get you to a sober life. My relapse was brutal, and my family and I decided it was time to check into a rehab clinic.
The thing is, willpower works like a muscle. If it is overused, it becomes exhausted. That’s what happened to me. Yet, self-control is crucial to recovery. I mentioned that willpower isn’t enough on its own, but it’s still essential. Take 12 Step programs, for example.
The structure of a 12 Step program is to have the individual accept that they are powerless to drugs and alcohol. The effectiveness of those programs is that once you accept your situation, you then find the will to recover.
Just like any other muscle, willpower needs to be developed in order to be effective. Here are 4 ways you can build your self-control and apply it to your goals:
1. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Temptation is among one of the top reasons for relapse in recovering addicts. Reducing the temptation is therefore crucial in maintaining sobriety. This could mean changes in your environment, such as spending less time with people who drink or do drugs. If you’re afraid that by going to a bar with some friends will tempt you to have a drink, then don’t go with them. You can always explain your situation.
In a workplace study, employees were given candy containers and researchers monitored how much they ate. When the candies were placed in the desk drawer, there was a 25% drop in the amount of candies that the employees ate. The same applies to anything which tempts you. Whether it’s candy, drugs, or alcohol, keeping your environment clean from temptation reduces your cravings.
2. Implementation Intention
This is a popular theory in the field of psychology. It works through the concept of having a plan, and understanding that every action has a consequence. A common way to practice implementation intention is to create “if-then” statements. They are used to anticipate upcoming situations to practice your reaction when they arise. Here are some examples of my “if-then” statements during my recovery:
- If someone offers me a drink at my father’s birthday party, then I’ll ask for a sparkling water instead.
- If I start to crave a drink, then I’ll go for a run to relieve some stress.
- If my friend asks me if I want to get high, then I’ll say that I don’t do that anymore.
- If I start to feel depressed, then I’ll practice a new hobby.
All of these were life-savers when those situations eventually came up. Believe me, they came up. I was able to respond immediately with my practiced reactions, thus not even contemplating a bad choice. A study performed on teenagers who struggled to achieve their goals showed positive results when they were taught how to use implementation intention.
3. More Glucose
Research has built a case for willpower being a resource in the brain which can deplete if it is used too much (think of the muscle comparison). If that’s the case, then it needs fuel to be replenished. As it turns out, glucose is the necessary energy source.
In a study, individuals were placed in a room with freshly baked cookies, chocolates and radishes. One group was allowed all three foods, and the other could only eat the radishes. The group which could only eat radishes showed signs of temptation shortly after being placed in the room.
Afterward, both groups were given an unsolvable puzzle. Those who ate the cookies lasted around 20 minutes, and those who ate the radishes lasted roughly 8 minutes. Remember, we’re talking about regular blood-sugar levels. This isn’t an excuse to eat more refined sugar. Look into some healthy meals to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels.
4. Achieve Your Goals One By One
As time passes, more and more studies show that having a list of New Year’s resolutions is a strategy which is prone to failure. Let’s say you have multiple goals like losing weight, eating healthier, and saving more money. If your willpower depletes in one of those areas, then the other areas will be affected as well. You’ll end up abandoning multiple goals at once.
Instead, focus on one goal at a time. When you dedicate the time necessary to improving one aspect of your life, you’ll then have the drive to move onto other goals afterward. Once you have successfully implemented a new habit into your life, you no longer have to focus on dedicating willpower to maintaining it.
In life, there are some things you can’t control. It was immensely difficult for me to accept my situation and find the drive to change it. Addiction ruins not only the lives of those who abuse the substances, but also of those around them. I was able to rebuild my relationships with my friends and family, when other people unfortunately don’t have that kind of opportunity. Having blank slate and finding strength in new beginnings played a major role in my recovery. These tips aren’t only limited to addiction, they can be applied in other parts of your life which require willpower as well.
How have you maintained your willpower in your life? Comment below!