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How to Keep Going When You Think You Can’t: 5 Tips for Tough Times

ByAmy Gutman, Contributor

Senior Facilitator, The OpEd Project

11/11/2011 08:19am ET | Updated January 11, 2012

You probably know the feeling: Just when you most need to push ahead, whatever willpower you once possessed is nowhere to be found. As it turns out, this is no coincidence: Just as an overly ambitious workout regime can exhaust our bodies, researchers have found that too many demands can decimate our willpower.

So what are we supposed to do?

As I slog on with a marathon job search on the tail of the Great Recession, I’ve spent a fair bit of time grappling with this dilemma. This is why I was so eager to read “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” a new book by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney showcasing ground-breaking research on self-control, a trait that’s been found to correlate with success in many key areas of life, including work, school, personal relationships and physical health.

Poring over the pages, I was intrigued to find some of my own ad hoc willpower strategies prominently featured. It occurred to me that this might be an excellent time to review my personal toolkit, newly enhanced with tips gleaned from my recent reading. For the record, here it is:

Take baby steps. We’ve all heard this countless times before, but it’s still worth repeating. (Baumeister and Tierney quote the prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”)

When we’re having a hard time taking action, it’s likely to be at least in part because we’re taking on too much. We’re thinking about writing a 50-page report rather than a single sentence. Our goal is to work for eight hours rather than 15 minutes. How do we know when we’ve broken a task into small enough components? We’re able to get started.

“Willpower”‘s authors also offer this related tip: Set a firm time limit for tedious tasks — we’re more likely to start cleaning out those files if we’ve decided to spend an hour on the job rather than the whole day.

Tackle a manageable unrelated goal. Failure feeds on itself. The seeming inability to get things done can lead to a loss of what psychologists call self-efficacy, the belief that our actions have predictable outcomes. By contrast, accomplishing even small goals can help restore lost confidence, boosting our spirits and inspiring us to keep going.

What sort of goal works best? Housecleaning or organizing your office are both good bets: I was fascinated — if not surprised — to learn that an orderly environment has been found to staunch willpower drain. “[E]nvironmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline,” Baumeister and Tierney write.

Another of my personal favorites: Do something kind for someone else. Whether it’s making blueberry muffins to share with a neighbor, sending a funny postcard to my mom, or helping a local non-profit get its message out, at the end of the day I know that I’ve made the world just a little bit better. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it has to be.

Track your accomplishments. I stumbled on this strategy more than a decade ago, when I traded my structured life as a law firm associate for the free-form existence of an aspiring novelist. I’d reach the end of a week, and think: “I’m not getting anything done! What is wrong with me?”

In an effort to take charge of my schedule, I started using a blank bound book — a so-called lawyer’s diary for which I had no further use — to track my activities day by day. And lo and behold, I wasn’t such a slacker after all! It just felt that way.

Reading “Willpower,” I discovered that such “self-monitoring ” behaviors have been found to play a crucial role in fostering self-control–with the added bonus of helping us feel better when we’re struggling. “On days when you… might be tempted to write yourself off as a hopeless cause, you can see otherwise by looking back at your progress,” the authors write. My experience exactly.

Do three things. Yesterday, I accidentally printed out my full to-do list: It was six pages long. As Baumeister and Tierney observe, “For most of us… the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them.”

One solution: Select and focus. Recognize that willpower is a finite commodity, and home in on your priorities. In my own life, I often tell myself that the day will be a success if I accomplish just three things — and, when that seems insufficient, I remind myself of the aforementioned baby-steps principle. (Today’s top three: Follow up on two work-related leads, finish revising this essay.)

Similarly, the authors suggest working on one big goal at a time. “When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well,” they caution. “If you’re going to start a new physical exercise program, don’t try to overhaul your finances at the same time.”

Take care of your body. There’s no more standard advice than “Eat well, and get enough sleep,” but Baumeister and Tierney take this a step farther, offering a biological explanation for why such things are so important in husbanding our willpower.

The principle is a simple one: The mental energy we need for self-control depends on the supply of glucose in our body’s bloodstream — one reason that some of us may start craving chocolate when we’re trying to jumpstart a project. No glucose? No willpower.

Not surprisingly, Baumeister and Tierney urge us to eat primarily on the low-glycemic end of the foods spectrum — vegetables, meat and fish, nuts, and “good fats” — in order to avoid the boom-bust cycle of starchy carbohydrates such as white bread and potatoes.

Sleep, too, plays an important role in maintaining our glucose levels, the authors report. Resting reduces the body’s glucose demands, while sleep deprivation has been shown to impair our ability to process glucose and, thus, to exert self-control.

In winding up their tour of all things willpower-related, Baumeister and Tierney note that the best way to assure an ample store of self-control is to avoid depleting our reserves. Of course, this is excellent advice, but it’s not always feasible. This is especially true today, when so many of us are dealing with job searches, investment losses, underwater mortgages, and other fallout from the Great Recession, along with the full panoply of life’s normal (and quite sufficient) stressors.

I came away from “Willpower” with a new appreciation both for what we can accomplish through our efforts — and what we cannot. There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of the authors’ message: Willpower can be strengthened through exercise, but it can also be exhausted through overuse and is likely to be, at least in part, genetically determined.

Our lives are unique, not only in the challenges we face but also in the resources we have to cope with them. Ultimately, we have to take stock of our own willpower reserves and — based on our goals and priorities — decide how we want to use them. A book can offer suggestions. The road map is up to us

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