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. 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?
Luckily, psychologists are starting to better understand our ability (or disability) to delay gratification or 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 no restraint left when it comes to your diet. Your willpower is all 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 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. 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. If you’re having trouble sticking to a resolution, ask yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.
#4. Tackle one thing at a time
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. Weight your goals and take them one at a time.
#5. 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.
#6. 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.