Forget what you thought you knew about willpower.
“For many of us, the word itself brings to mind forcing and struggle,” says Uma Sanghvi, a mind-body coach based in Austin. “The idea that the body is an untamed animal that has to be controlled into submission is part of an old paradigm. In this old world view, the belief is that hard work is the only way to achieve a goal.”
But we can trade that approach for something far more profound and fun, according to Sanghvi, who uses somatic and mindfulness techniques to help people reconnect with their body’s innate wisdom.
“I’d like to suggest a new definition of willpower: acting in service of your higher self,” she says. “In other words, let your actions be in service of your intuition – that wise part of yourself which knows your deepest desires and the way to reach them.”
Er, sounds complicated and kind of hard. But it doesn’t have to be. Mostly it takes some practice. Here’s Sanghvi’s strategy:
1. Know what you want
Use intuition to home in on your willpower aspiration. In other words: Go with your gut.
One way to start listening to your gut is to sit quietly for 10 minutes. Once you’ve settled in, think of something that makes you happy (the beach, your dog), and then notice how your body reacts (a slight smile, softening in your shoulders). That’s your gut talking.
Next, start thinking of situations in your life, and then notice if those pleasurable sensations remain – or shift to discomfort (a knot in the stomach, your jaw tightening).
Do this for a few days. Then introduce things you’d like to change in your life. At this point, you’ll be more attuned to your gut and able to use it to clarify your willpower goal.
“Most people are driven by other people’s goals. Once you know who you are and what you truly want, you are powerful,” Sanghvi says.
To be sure: Intuition is not the same thing as following your habits. As an extreme example, say you grew up with a verbally abusive parent. You might later be attracted to a verbally abusive partner – you’re following a very strong habit, not your intuition.
“That feeling of painful love is like an addiction,” Sanghvi says. “There’s a pull towards the familiar.”
The first step in avoiding that pull (and it can apply to all sorts of habits, from overeating to biting your nails) is to notice that it’s painful in some way. So beneath that attraction there is a physical awareness of pain (for example, you feel badly about yourself when your partner berates you), which you can listen to – if you allow yourself enough patience to identify it.
Next you have to work through it, which can be a big challenge (and might require a caring therapist). Until you do, you might not be in touch with your gut.
“Unfortunately, stress and trauma creates mind-body dissociation. For those of us who have had trauma, it is very uncomfortable to be present with sensation in the body,” Sanghvi says. “We tend to navigate life from the neck up, with the mind, making decisions without the input of intuition.”
As you move through the process below, continually return to step 1 to notice what your gut is saying.
2. Start small
Focus on the start.
“Don’t obsess about the finish line, or you’ll never get there,” Sanghvi says. “Obsess about the starting line.”
Let’s say you’d like to change your social media habits so that eventually you barely check all those feeds. Experiment with shutting off your phone or blocking sites from your laptop for one hour a day. Then notice how you feel.
“Be curious about what emotional payoff you get from being on Facebook and Instagram,” Sanghvi says. “Is your addiction motivated by boredom? By a need to connect with others? Is it a way of avoiding a job you don’t like?” (Exercises in step 1 are useful here.)
3. Help yourself
We are more likely to want something if it’s right in front of us.
So leave your phone in another room. If you’re not ready to delete Facebook from your phone, make it harder to find. Put social media apps inside nested folders, so it takes at least three clicks to get to them, Sanghvi suggests.
If you’re on Facebook a lot because you crave social connection (which you discovered in step 2) establish other ways to connect with people: call a friend, take a group class.
4. Get specific
Have a plan and put your action steps on your calendar.
That might mean gradually increasing how long you stay away from social media each day, until you check it once every few weeks.
Remember: Take time to notice what you feel as you follow this new pattern (returning to exercises in step 1).
5. Be nice to yourself
Use self-compassion when you get off track.
“It’s time to let go of the idea that if we resist temptation and get a lot done, we are somehow good, and if we give in to temptation and procrastination, we are bad,” Sanghvi says. “Let’s not confuse willpower with virtue.”
Plus, humans tend to be motivated by positive reinforcement – not negative feedback.
“The guilt and shame that arise from telling ourselves we are bad, lazy and stupid are deeply painful emotions,” Sanghvi says. “Emotional discomfort often leads us to numb ourselves with the very behaviors we are trying to quit.”
Connect with journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.