Six Ways to Boost Your Willpower for Addiction Recovery
Most people vastly overestimate the role of willpower in addiction recovery. They assume that staying sober is just a matter of gritting your teeth and pushing through. In reality, addiction is typically caused by a combination of factors including genes, childhood environment, trauma, and mental health issues. The root causes of addiction have to be addressed for recovery to succeed. Saying willpower is all you need to recover from addiction is like saying willpower is all you need to recover from diabetes.
However, willpower does play a role. You need a bit of willpower to use your cognitive therapy skills, go to meetings when you really don’t feel like it, and do the other things in your recovery plan. While treatment and a recovery plan are what really help you recover, willpower can help you stay engaged. The following are some tips to give you a bit of extra willpower when you need it.
Exercise your willpower muscle.
For a while, there was an idea going around that willpower is a finite resource that you have to conserve throughout your day. While this is true in the short term — just as you might be tired after climbing a few flights of stairs — in the long term, the more you use your willpower, the stronger it gets. Just like how taking the stairs will get you into better physical shape in the long run, working your willpower muscle will increase your self-control.
For example, one study asked smokers to engage in activities that required some degree of willpower — either refraining from eating sweets or squeezing a hand gripper — for two weeks, while a control group was assigned tasks that didn’t require willpower. It turned out that the group that had performed tasks requiring willpower were more successful at quitting smoking.
You can easily apply this principle to your own life by making it a point to do small, slightly irritating tasks. You might give up sweets, like in the smoking study. Alternatively, you might make it a point to improve your posture or brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. The point is to practice doing things that are slightly uncomfortable and that you would rather not do. Be sure to give yourself a bit of rest between tasks that require willpower, so you have time to recover.
Clean your house.
Cleaning your house is surprisingly good for boosting willpower. First, it’s an excellent way to strengthen your willpower muscle, since no one ever really feels like taking out the trash or washing the dishes. Keeping a clean house provides many small and useful ways to build your willpower.
However, a cleaner environment also appears to boost your willpower even if you weren’t the one to clean it. One study² put some participants in an orderly environment and others in a messy environment, then asked them to make various choices. The participants who were in a more orderly environment were more likely to choose healthy snacks and donate money. Having a clean house might give you the extra bit of willpower you need to exercise or eat a bit healthier.
Get in touch with your values.
Nietzsche famously said that whoever has a why can endure any how. One of the biggest challenges to our willpower is when we face a choice that appears not to have any stakes. For example, you know that one cookie won’t really make a difference in the scheme of things, and since it doesn’t matter, you might as well eat it. Skipping one 12-Step meeting is probably not going to sink your recovery.
However, these things add up. That’s why it’s important to identify your most important values and connect your daily activities to those values. So, for example, a lot of people decide to get sober for the sake of their families. If that has been part of your motivation, as well, keeping “family” in mind can help you overcome whatever resistance you’re feeling when you’re trying to decide whether or not to attend your 12-Step meeting today.
Use your willpower where it will do the most good.
In addition to strengthening your willpower through exercise and other things that can give it a boost, be sure you’re using your willpower to your best advantage. For example, it’s much easier to use your willpower to take a different route to work every day than it is to pass by the bar and not stop. It’s easier to go past the bar than it is to go in but not order a drink, and so on. Use some foresight and strategy so you can avoid the need for herculean displays of willpower.
Create healthy habits.
Often, what looks like willpower is just a matter of good habits. Most of our behavior is habitual to some degree, so use that to your advantage. When creating a new habit, it’s important to link it to an existing habit, start small, and only create one new habit at a time. So, for example, if you want to start exercising regularly, start by tying it to something you already do every day, like waking up or coming home from work.
Say you come home from work, change into your exercise clothes, and walk for five minutes. After a month or two, this will become automatic and you won’t have to use any willpower to get your daily exercise.
Spend time with the right people.
You can only expect to do so much on your own. Your motivation and willpower are always stronger at some times and weaker at others. Having the right people around you can get you through rough spots by keeping you focused on the right things and holding you accountable. In the context of recovery, for example, the camaraderie of your 12-Step group can help keep you engaged even when you have other things on your mind. It’s essentially a way of outsourcing your willpower to get you through tough times.
No one recovering from addiction should be relying entirely on willpower, but it certainly can help you stick to your recovery plan. Your beliefs about willpower matter too; if you believe your willpower will run out, then you won’t have as much. Otherwise, it’s important to build your willpower in small ways, remember why you’re exercising your willpower to begin with, create healthy habits, and find supportive people. At The Foundry, we know that addiction is complex and that overcoming it is about creating a healthier, more fulfilling life. To learn more about our treatment options, explore our website or call us today at (844) 955-1066.
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