A series of new studies show that we only have a limited amount of will power to use at any given time in our lives. Try to take on too many major life changes and it runs out. This has now been demonstrated in controlled studies.
So how does this relate to addiction and recovery?
When I look back at my progress in long term recovery from addiction, I can see a clear pattern.
At first, I tried to do too many things at once. I was living in long term treatment at the time, and I was trying to quit smoking cigarettes, trying to learn meditation, trying to work through the 12 steps, trying to get my degree from college, and so on.
Some of these efforts were working to an extent, but none of them were really going the way I wanted at the time. I repeatedly failed to quit smoking, for example. I worked out for a month or so and then sort of tapered off. I was taking 1 or 2 classes at the time, but was not really moving closer to graduating, at least not anytime soon.
Furthermore, I felt like a was stretched a bit thin in terms of personal growth projects. I was not “hitting my stride” in any area because I was trying to do too much and take on too many different things at once.
Well here is what happened in my recovery: at some point, I was really sick of smoking cigarettes, and I vowed to give it my ultimate effort to quit. So I did just that: I took time off of work, I saved money to reward myself with, I researched the topic endlessly and prepared for it, and so on. I gave it my best effort, and really devoted my life to the change for a period of two weeks.
Well, it worked. Finally. After years of struggling with nicotine addiction in my recovery, I was finally able to quit.
And the key was focus.
One goal. Intense focus. That is what finally worked for me. I was finally able to quit through the power of focus.
After quitting smoking, I have used that same focus to achieve other life changing goals: I built a business for myself, I ran a marathon, I got my Bachelor’s degree, and so on.
So my theory has slowly evolved over time to this: focus on one major goal at a time. Do not overwhelm yourself. If you dig back through my articles you will see this idea repeated over and over again: one goal at a time, master it, then use the momentum to tackle your next major life change. One thing at a time.
Positive changes, one goal at a time. Don’t take on the world. Don’t try to change everything at once. Master one thing and then move on.
So now here is the kicker…..
Research now supports the idea of one goal at a time
The New York Times reports a recent series of studies that show a number of findings that support these ideas.
For example, they say in the article that:
“The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting will power in one area often leads to backsliding in others.”
“…it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your will power cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success. ”
“…consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase will power” and “…practice increases willpower capacity.”
So the conclusion from this research is clear, and I intuitively arrived at the same conclusions based on my own success that I had in making major life changes:
* Focus on one major life change at a time in your recovery (such as quitting smoking, regular exercise, diet and nutrition, etc.) ONE goal at time.
* Keep practicing this method of personal growth. Do not idle without working towards something. Always push yourself to achieve one major goal. Once you achieve it, move on and tackle your next challenge.
Two side notes: sleep and nutrition
The studies that were done also reported on how our willpower in following through on tasks as being affected by sleep and nutrition:
“The studies also showed that task persistence is reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.”
“Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.”
So basically, having poor sleep habits and eating junk food and lots of sugar is really bad for your will power, and this has now been tested and measured in controlled studies. Interesting that they could actually prove how these things (lack of sleep and high sugar foods) lowered willpower.
This is exciting to me because I recently stopped eating sugar and flour and have noticed that all cravings for food have subsided completely, while also giving me much more level energy throughout the day (I am completely off of caffeine as well at this time).
Conclusion: you have a limited amount of will power with which to try and make changes in your life at a given time. Therefore, take on one goal at a time, master it, and then move on to the next one. It is in this way that you make real progress, without taking on so much that you get overwhelmed.
What used to be “one day at a time” is now “one change at a time.”
It works for me!