The American Psychological Association defines will power as “the ability to resist short term temptations to meet long term goals.” As we all know, this can be very challenging! And there are so many aspects of our lives where we need strong self-control. To achieve our goals, perform at our best, or simply to meet the requirements of the day.
Some are very obvious. For example, when we’re pregnant, we need to abstain from eating and drinking certain things. As parents, we need to be able to effectively discipline our children. And, at the same time, control our tempers! Perhaps we’re also trying to eat healthy and exercise, or overcome an addiction.
All these challenges but a strain on our will power. But there are also many things we don’t typically associate with will power that can influence our ability to “hold the line”. And certain conditions that make it harder for us to maintain our self-control.
I’ve heard will power and self-control described as personality characteristics. As though you either have it or you don’t. But I’ve learned there’s a more accurate way to describe will power. It’s more like a muscle we all have. We can build its strength, but we can also over use or strain it. And like any other organ or part of our body, when it’s over-used, it is more likely to fail.
We all know what it feels like to have our will power tested. But what we may not realize is all the things that make it harder for us maintain self-control. Especially when things get to be challenging.
Surprisingly, the number of decisions that we must make can directly influence how well we’re able to maintain self-control in other, unrelated areas.
As women, we make the majority of the household decisions (over 80%, according to one study).
We are constantly making decisions, large and small. Everything from what brand of laundry detergent to use to what day-care provider to use. We usually bear the brunt of other decisions related to the health of our family, too: choosing a doctor, dentist, health insurance; planning daily meals, choosing activities for our children, etc. Many of us are also the primary manager of household finances, both paying the bills, and/or creating savings plans for longer term needs. This means we’re making tons of important decisions. All the time. And not only do we make them. To a large extend, we bear the responsibility for the consequences of them, too.
Decision making causes us stress.
And the more stress we have in our lives, the more difficult it becomes to both be decisive and strong. As a result, the more decisions we have to make, the more likely we are to fail in maintaining self-control when it comes to things like diet, exercise, and finances. Put another way, anything that removes stress from our lives improves our ability to maintain will power and self-control.
This is why when we diet, we’re advised to clear the house of junk food. If it’s not there, we aren’t tempted to eat it – we don’t have to “decide” to forego it. Similarly, if we’re trying to cut back on spending, we’re advised to leave our credit cards at home. By eliminating choices, we make it easier to maintain our resolve.
When we become parents, the sheer volume of decisions we have to make skyrockets. We’re no longer just taking care of ourselves! During this phase of our lives, it can be especially important to do what we can to not overuse that will power muscle. We will need our resolve and self-control more than ever during these challenging times!
Here are some suggestions about how to limit our choices, without compromising the quality of our lives:
Remove financial decisions from daily life
This may mean setting up automatic contributions to savings or retirement accounts. Or setting automatic payment or renewals for routine services, like car insurance. It can also help to automate the minimum payment option for credit cards – we can always pay more later if we like, but this eliminates making the decision of when to sit down and pay the bills. And the pressure of making sure we don’t miss a payment deadline.
Subscribing to some form of ready-to-cook meal service
Even if it’s just a few days a week, not having to choose what to eat, how to prepare it, when and where to shop for the ingredients, etc. can make life easier. There are now many healthy options to choose from, so this can also help when we’re trying to watch what we eat.
Establish a routine
Set a daily schedule that includes regular times for meals, sleep, work and exercise eliminates the need to make decisions daily. It also will help us develop healthy habits and promotes good sleep – and rest is also key to self-control.
When my children were small and I was especially busy I had to do this often. One thing I did was that on Sunday evening, I’d pick out 5 outfits to wear to work that week. Then each morning I’d just choose which outfit I wanted to wear from those 5. By limiting my options, it made my morning that much more efficient and removed minor decisions from the start of my day. (This practice works for kids, too. Having a few outfits ready for them to choose from each morning helps them feel empowered to make decisions, but keeps it manageable for both of you).
Avoid simultaneous life events that will require major decisions
For example, if you’re planning to become pregnant, try to make housing decisions before or after the pregnancy. If you know you’re going to move, postpone major decisions in other aspects of your life until you’ve settled into your new digs. Don’t try to make major relationship decisions when you’re starting a new job or are contemplating a career change. The more choices we try to make simultaneously, the poorer the quality of those choices will be. And the less will power we will have left to do well at daily life challenges such as keeping up with diet and exercise.
Schedule and spread out decisions
It may take some work to implement, but it is possible to consciously spread out major decisions throughout the year. For example, perhaps your health insurance renews in January. Make sure your car insurance doesn’t renew then, too. Are there months of the year when you know you must make big decisions? Plan a summer vacation? Pick camps for the kids? Make holiday plans? Try to space these out so that you don’t have to tackle too many at one time.
Shift decision making to others
Obviously, if there are decision making tasks that we can shift to our partners, this is a good place to begin. But changing another person’s role is often easier said than done. All that said, there are times when we have a willing participant – but we have chosen to shoulder too much on our own, and he or she has let us! Give them a chance to pitch in.
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