Every day your self-control is tested in myriad ways. Whipped cream on your Mocha Frappuccino? A drink or three after a long day at the office? And how much time would you say you do spend on these
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If you had more willpower, just think of all the things you could achieve: your goal weight, financial security, six-pack abs, actually finishing a book before book club, world domination.
Luckily, psychologists are starting to better understand our ability to delay gratification and resist temptation in favor of long-term goals. Some of their discoveries, as outlined in a report of the American Psychological Association, may surprise and even encourage you.
What is willpower?
Psychologists studying self-control describe a “hot-and-cool” system. A person’s cool system is cognitive and reflective, and the hot system is emotional and impulsive. Willpower fails when a “hot” stimulus (“OMG, Christian Bale is sitting at the bar next to me”) overrides the cool system (“but I’m happily married”). There goes your self-control.
So why do some people seem to have more willpower (Lance Armstrong) than others (the entire cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)? It seems people are more, or less, susceptible to their hot triggers, in a pattern that can persist throughout an entire lifetime. Some studies suggest this may be hard-wired in your brain.
Willpower can also be depleted. Like a limited resource, if you use all your self-control in one area of your life, you can sap your stores for other areas. For example, if just getting through your workday requires heroic discipline, you may have little restraint left when it comes to your diet. Your willpower is tapped out.
How to build your willpower muscle
The good news is that psychologists now believe willpower is like a muscle. The more it’s exercised, the stronger it becomes in the long run. Your biceps may be tired after ten curls and your tenth rep less effective than your first, but the next time you lift weights, you’ll be stronger and exhausted less quickly. So it is with exercising willpower.
There are also certain things you can do to buffer yourself from the effects of willpower depletion. Here are suggestions from experts including the APA and clinical psychologist Elaine Ducharme:
#1. Eat regular, healthy meals
Your brain requires glucose (blood sugar) to run. “Brain cells working hard to maintain self-control consume glucose faster than it can be replenished…. Restoring glucose appears to help reboot run-down willpower,” says the APA report. That doesn’t give you license to hunt down a Snickers bar. Healthy foods without refined sugar are best for keeping blood sugar at even levels.
#2. Put yourself in a good mood
Had a long day of restraint that’s starting to feel like deprivation? Try to look on the bright side. Replay in your mind a happy memory. Watch a funny movie. Advises Ducharme, “Find ways to take care of your emotional self during the day, because you’re going to be far more likely to exercise willpower then.”
#3. Create routines to reduce decision fatigue from smaller things
Establishing daily routines help build the discipline needed to stay motivated, because by scheduling your day and sticking to a set routine, you reduce decision fatigue from “small” things and increase your available mental energy for the BIG things.
#4. Tackle one thing at a time, and start small at first
Many people find themselves on self-betterment kicks, but trying to apply self-control in too many areas at once can set you up for failure. Weigh your goals and take them one at a time. Studies have shown that setting small, achievable goals and achieving small victories, you can build momentum and establish a positive feedback loop, which can lead to bigger accomplishments over time.
#5. Practice delayed gratification
Delayed gratification builds willpower by teaching you to resist immediate rewards for long-term goals. One of the best ways to be a long term thinker is to practice mindfulness and reduce autopilot thinking. Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the moment. By focusing on the here and now, you can reduce stress and improve your ability to stay focused on your goals.
Mindfulness is a whole field unto itself, and has a range of benefits. We definitely recommend you look into it.
#6. Keep a positive social support network
Building a strong social support network can significantly enhance your willpower and help you achieve your goals. A support system is a group of people who can offer emotional, physical, and mental assistance during times of need.
Being around like-minded people who share your aspirations can help you stay motivated and focused. Your support network can provide you with the necessary motivation, feedback, and accountability that you need to maintain your willpower.
In addition, having positive relationships can reduce stress and promote overall well-being. Research has shown that social support can help reduce the impact of stressful situations and increase resilience.
#7. Do it for yourself, not others
A study at the University at Albany found that those who exercised discipline to satisfy internal goals and desires rather than external demands were less likely to experience willpower depletion. In other words, people-pleasers are more likely to feel their self-control run low, and self-motivated people just keep on ticking. If you’re having trouble sticking to a resolution, ask yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.
#8. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise is not only good for physical health, but it also has a positive impact on your willpower. Numerous studies have found that exercise can help boost willpower in several ways.
Firstly, exercise can increase energy levels, which is essential for maintaining willpower. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals that can increase your energy and improve your mood. Regular exercise can help you feel more energized and motivated throughout the day, making it easier to resist temptation and stick to your goals.
Secondly, exercise can reduce stress levels, which can have a significant impact on your willpower. High levels of stress can lead to decreased willpower, making it more challenging to stay focused and motivated. However, regular exercise can help reduce stress by releasing tension in the body and promoting relaxation. This can help you stay calm and focused, even when faced with challenging situations.
Thirdly, exercise can improve focus, concentration, and the mentioned mindfulness. When you exercise, you are not only working out your body but also your mind. Exercise helps to increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which can enhance cognitive function, including focus and concentration. This increased mental clarity can help you stay on track with your goals and make it easier to resist distractions.
#9. “Implementation intention” — have a plan
It seems the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” does have some truth to it. But if you can’t avoid temptation altogether, have a plan, or what psychologists call an “implementation intention.”
Create an if-then scenario for yourself. If there is an office party, then you will bring fruit instead of eating cupcakes. If someone offers you a drink, then you will ask for club soda with a lime. If it’s raining, then you will do yoga rather than run outside.
If the decision is already made for you, then you’re not drawing on possibly depleted willpower reserves in the moment.
#10. Forget what you just read?
Interestingly, a 2010 Stanford study showed that individuals who believed their willpower was exhaustible were more likely to experience depletion than those who did not. Don’t give yourself a reason to let yourself off the hook. Now you know that just because willpower can be depleted doesn’t mean it can’t be strengthened.