How to boost your willpower

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 3:52pm

Ice cream doesn't stand a chance against me - I have been known to polish off entire two-litre tubs in one sitting. In my resolve to eat less of the sweet treat, I find the battle is usually won or lost long before I dip my spoon in the tub. It takes place in the supermarket, when I decide whether to put the tub in my trolley.

I find it quite easy to resist buying the ice cream, really. But once in my freezer, it's hard to overcome the temptation to have a nice big bowl of it after dinner almost every night. I think this holds true for many healthy and life-giving decisions in my life - the key battle is often fought before the final decision.

Take drinking. If I want to drink a little less alcohol at home, I must make sure that I don't buy or put any bottles of beer or white wine in my fridge.

With exercise, I find the best way to make sure I keep fit is not to make lots of resolutions about running, but to make a deliberate strategic early decision - that is, to sign up for a race. Once I've done so, I suddenly have plenty of motivation to go running much more often.

What about work? As a writer, my main problems are distractions that take me away from my core task of working on a book or an article. And my greatest distraction is checking my e-mail, both on the computer and on my mobile phone. I know full well from experience that if I try to resist on my own willpower, I often fail. Just as I am about to start doing some serious writing, I decide to have a "quick check", and this often turns into an epic e-mailing marathon.

So I've thought hard about how to defeat this bane. My first strategy in my war against e-mail distraction is to use a free Mac application called SelfControl which blocks any website for up to 24 hours. There is no way to undo it once you activate it - not even by restarting your computer. I activate it to block all e-mail, social media, search engine and blog websites, before I start work on any concentrated task. It is quite effective.

The smartphone is a more difficult enemy to defeat. My solution is to leave it in another room or ask my wife to hide it. This may sound radical, but this is war, and I need to be honest with myself about how much time I will waste otherwise.

A final area that I've been working on for greater self-discipline is in my marriage. We have been married only three years and have no children, but I've noticed that, especially in Hong Kong, it's easy to fill up our time with being busy and to have little quality time left over for each other.

Nicky and Sila Lee, creators of the Marriage Course say that the single most important piece of advice they give to married couples is to schedule one quality "date night" every week - and note it down in your diary. This is when you go on a good old-fashioned date, and actually get time and space to talk to your spouse for an unhurried amount of time. The cinema doesn't count.

My wife and I have tried this strategy, and we have found it to be true on two counts: first, unless we write the date night into our calendars, we often do not go on a date for weeks. Second, having this quality evening together each week has been really good for our marriage.

So in these areas of life - eating, drinking, exercise, work and relationships - I think it's wise to fight the battles early. Merely making a resolution in my head does not really work, but thinking strategically about an earlier decision I can make gives me a far greater chance of success. That is the theory anyway.

Now, where's my iPhone? I want to check my e-mail.