Lose weight, save money, start exercising, stop procrastinating, get organized, go to grad school, give up reality TV, take up the piano…no matter what your goal, you need willpower to achieve it. But when you’re tired, stressed or hungry, your self-control wanes—and that may make you particularly susceptible to temptation.
“Willpower is not a constant feature of your character, as was once thought,” explains Roy Baumeister, PhD, the Florida State University psychologist who wrote the book on willpower (actually, he cowrote Willpower). “It’s a level of energy that fluctuates over the day as it is used and replenished.”
The problem is the system that fuels willpower is also the one you rely on for concentration, decision-making and self-control. Trying to sift through a pound of information to relay the most salient facts about a patient in distress? Energy-sapping. So is selecting the items you want included on your wedding registry. Taming your nervousness when giving a presentation, mustering the focus you need to multitask, keeping your cool when your teenage daughter picks a fight, whatever—all deplete the energy needed to resist whatever leads you into temptation.
The good news is, we’ve learned a lot about the physiology of self-control, and although it’s an expendable resource, it’s also expandable. Exercise and meditation have been shown to build neural pathways that bolster self-control. Adequate sleep and a diet that keeps blood sugar on an even keel are also important. Okay, sometimes it’s a catch-22: It often takes willpower to increase your willpower. But like a muscle, it can be built up with simple self-control exercises–like using your non-dominant hand to open doors or brush your teeth, sitting up straight instead of slouching, or using whole words rather than contractions— practiced over the course of weeks have been shown to boost willpower. Whenever possible, practice energy conservation, “Pick your battles and really let go of the others,” suggests Dr. Baumeister. “Also beware of the trap of trying to do everything. That will exhaust you severely.”
You don’t have to be a nurse to feel overwhelmed on occasion, but there are very specific roadblocks to self-control that nurses experience day after day. Being aware of them—and the ways around them—are key to keeping you on your path to achieving all your goals and feeling good about yourself.
THE DRAIN: Sensory Overload
Poor lighting, a cacophony of sounds, and the smells…working in a hospital can be an assault on your senses. Getting used to the environmental stressors that are part and parcel of the job doesn’t mitigate the negative effect they can have on your body; in fact, they can tax an already overloaded system with stress. In fact, a 2010 study looked at the environmental stressors nurses face and found that the noise level of a hospital contributed to burnout. What to do?
RESTORE: Take a Nature Break
If your workplace has a green space, take advantage of it during breaks. There’s a wealth of research that demonstrates the restorative power of nature. Merely gazing out on greenery has been shown to speed recovery time for surgical patients, reduce hostility in prison inmates and improve self-discipline in girls. Exposure to nature can also increase your capacity to concentrate and lessen stress. Revive your willpower by finding creative ways to bring nature to work—set your screen saver to a seascape or a flower-filled meadow, download an app that depicts sounds of nature for a 30-second time-out, and if a patient has a room with a view, direct your attention outdoors for a mini-break.
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