One of the persistent myths about addiction and recovery is that it’s all about willpower. People think recovery is all about grit. However, if you’re relying on willpower alone, you probably won’t stay sober long. Many factors contribute to addiction, including genes, childhood environment, trauma, and mental health issues. A strong recovery typically requires therapy, social support, and healthy lifestyle changes. That said, there is a role for willpower. Willpower is what helps you go to a 12-Step meeting when you would rather stay home or avoid going to a party where you know everyone will be drinking or using drugs. Willpower can keep you sober when you’re faced with unexpected temptations. Although you shouldn’t rely on willpower to stay sober, it can certainly come in handy. Here are some suggestions for getting more willpower.
Use Willpower Strategically
First, use what willpower you have where it will do the most good. For example, it’s much easier to use willpower to avoid entering a bar than it is to use it to avoid ordering a drink once you’ve gone in. Look for leverage points so you can avoid temptation.
Practice in Small Ways
There has been a lot of media coverage in recent years about how willpower is a limited resource and that spending mental energy on one thing, like avoiding cookies, will deplete willpower you could use on other things, like avoiding alcohol. More recent research reported by the American Psychological Association suggests this is misleading in two ways. First, thinking of willpower as a limited resource actually diminishes your willpower. Although there is evidence that continually exerting willpower wears you down, your beliefs about willpower matter too.
Second, although willpower can be depleted in the short term, it can also build back up with a bit of rest. In other words, willpower is a bit like a muscle that grows stronger when you exercise it, provided you give yourself time to recover afterward. So, for example, every time you order a salad instead of fries or take the stairs instead of the elevator, you’re building your willpower in small ways.
Use Your Imagination
There’s a concept in AA called “playing the tape.” This is when you imagine all the consequences of using drugs or alcohol again. Too often, people thinking about relapsing only imagine the initial moment of gratification and forget about all the consequences that will follow it. Playing the tape means you imagine the negative consequences as vividly as possible, which motivates you to stay sober. You don’t have to only use this when your sobriety is on the line. You can use it any time you’re facing down temptation. For example, you want to eat a pint of ice cream but, if you play the tape, you will remember that once you eat it, you’ll feel gross and disappointed in yourself. Seeing the outcome will help you make a better decision.
Create Good Habits
What looks like willpower is often just the result of good habits. These habits can take many forms–taking a route to work that avoids your old bar, choosing water instead of soda, exercising at the same time every day, and so on. The great thing about habits is that once you’ve formed them, you don’t have to put any effort into them. They’re like free healthy decisions. In fact, it’s harder to deviate from them and do the unhealthy thing instead. When creating a habit, pick one thing that will have a good effect on your life. Tie it to something you already do or replace an existing habit. It will probably take a month or two for the habit to become automatic, so start with keystone habits such as getting enough sleep, exercising daily, or improving your diet.
Get Back Up
When it comes to our behaviors, who we spend time with has a major impact on our decisions. Our friends and family influence what we believe is normal and acceptable. Spending more time with sober people will automatically influence your ideas about how to act. This effect is even stronger if some of those people are actually with you. For example, if you are going to a family gathering where you know there will be stress and alcohol, bringing a sober friend with you can bolster your willpower and keep you accountable.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Getting plenty of quality sleep is essential for good mental and physical health. Even a moderate sleep deficit can impair your attention, memory, emotional regulation, and self-control. Research shows that sleep deprivation leads to poorer decisions and more impulsive behavior. Among the many things that happen during sleep, your brain replenishes the depleted fuel used during the day. That fuel is necessary for the brain to function properly, including those areas related to self-control. Most people need at least eight hours a night and sleep is much better quality when you have a regular bedtime and a regular wake-up time.
Keep Your House Clean
Keeping your house clean boosts your willpower in two ways. First, it is the perfect exercise for building up your willpower “muscle.” No one feels like taking out the trash or loading the dishwasher but doing them anyway is a good way to exercise your willpower. They’re small, low-stakes willpower workouts that you can recover from quickly. Second, there is some evidence that a neater environment boosts willpower. One study published in the journal Psychological Science found that participants chose healthier snacks and donated more money just because they were in a more orderly environment. The researchers suggest that these participants made healthier decisions because they used less mental energy making sense of the clutter.
Willpower is just one tool in your recovery toolbox but, used the right way, it can make a huge difference. The key is to see every decision as a chance to get stronger. With practice, making the right choices about where to go, who to spend time with, and whether or not to indulge some impulse will become second nature. At Steps Recovery Centers, we understand that recovery goes far beyond your initial treatment. We aim to give all our clients the resources they need to succeed in the long term. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931.