Engage Your Willpower to Manage Diabetes: Five Proven Ways

Willpower, according to several dictionaries, is an energetic determination; the ability to control one’s thoughts, behavior, impulses or actions; and the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes and plans. Phew!

Exercising willpower is a tall order when needed to accomplish something we really want to do. It is a gargantuan order when required for something we never asked for in the first place, such as monitoring glucose, following strict dietary guidelines and losing 30 pounds.

Our Wayward Willpower

You would think healthy lifestyle choices would come naturally to humans, since most of us want to live long, productive lives and feel good while doing it. Yet we have evolved with a pleasure center in the brain that seems to make its own rules with a dubious regard for our health.

So how are we to care for ourselves when our willpower does not match the task given us, such as diabetes management? In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal gives us some clues:

The biggest enemies of willpower: temptation, self-criticism and stress ... these three skills – self-awareness, self-care and remembering what matters most – are the foundation for self-control.

The secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.

Five Ways to Engage Your Willpower

To shift our willpower into drive, we need to disengage ourselves from stress, self-criticism and temptation. Scientists are discovering the best ways for us to accomplish this, and the first thing to do is dump the guilt.

Willpower Engagement #1: Be Easy on Yourself

Research reveals that if you eat a fat and sugar laden chunk of cheesecake and then wallow in guilt over your dietary failure, you are more likely to reach for another piece of cheesecake – or some cookies or a candy bar.

This method works better than guilt:

  1. Acknowledge to yourself that you ate something you should not have.
  2. Remind yourself that giving into temptation is a very human behavior, something we all do now and then. It does not mean we are bad or that something is innately wrong with us.
  3. Let the guilt go and continue with your day. (To indulge is human, to let go is sublime.)

Willpower Engagement #2: Good Sleep and Self-Care

Willpower is not just an idea; it is based in biology, and exercising it requires more mental energy than most other activities.

  1. Get plenty of Z's. Without adequate sleep, we do not have the mental energy to exercise our willpower well. It is as if we are riding a bike and do not have the strength to pedal. The bike starts to wobble, and it becomes increasingly difficult to steer it toward our destination. When temptation to get off the bike calls, it is likely we will answer.
  2. Good self care also helps us maintain the energy to keep pedaling. This means doing activities we enjoy and which refresh us. Examples are listening to music, practicing yoga, dancing, praying, connecting with animals and nature, reading, tinkering with the car’s engine and gardening.

Willpower Engagement #3: Hi-jack Your Motivational System

We all want to change or make healthy choices, but our motivation can be a donkey that needs a carrot dangling in front of it.

Research has repeatedly shown that:

  1. The anticipation of a reward, even a small one, activates the motivational system in our brain. Apparently, our motivation mechanism enjoys having a possibility to chase after.
  2. We are more likely to resist temptation when our motivational system is activated.

So find small (or big) ways to reward yourself for a day or week of making healthy choices.

Willpower Engagement #4: Pay Attention to Your Feelings or Cravings

If you tell yourself not to think of a pink turtle, you will think of a pink turtle. We often try to overcome thoughts, feelings or cravings that take us off track by telling ourselves not to have them. This works for hardly anyone.

When you feel tempted:

  1. Notice or observe your feeling or craving. Pay attention to it without deciding it is good or bad – and without trying to overcome it.
  2. Remind yourself that you cannot control your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Remember your goal or diabetes management commitments and make a decision based on your goals.

Willpower Engagement #5: Pay Attention to Failure (Huh?)

Research shows that paying attention to how we avoid doing what we should be doing – how we talk ourselves out of things – makes a positive difference.

  1. Every morning, write down the biggest obstacle to reaching your goal(s). Be specific and use details.
  2. Come up with a plan for managing the obstacle and write it down.
  3. Go about your day.

Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners. ~ Shakespeare

Source: The Will Power Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Avery, 2011

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