Improving willpower is something that should be on everyone’s list of resolutions. In fact, you might not achieve many of your New Year’s Resolutions without willpower.
Willpower is vital for a healthy, productive and happy life because it’s your armor and your fuel to dig deep for the power within you to accomplish important goals. You also need willpower to resist impulses or distractions that won't help your growth.
Once you find that strength, in the form of willpower, you can create great changes in your life. You can achieve your objectives no matter how challenging life gets, because you're committed to following through. For this reason, improving willpower often equates to many positive outcomes in life.
Improving your willpower could change your life, but how do you do it? Think of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened, exercised, flexed and trained.
Harnessing willpower may sound easier said than done, but improving willpower is certainly possible with the right mindset. Anyone who has ever gone on a diet or tried to break a bad habit like nail biting or smoking would attest that temptation is everywhere, making it tough to create lasting changes.
It's difficult to cease unhealthy habits you've grown accustomed to doing. Even clever and organized people could readily crumble and lose their willpower when faced with their own version of "kryptonite" or something they love that isn’t necessarily good for them like alcohol, cigars, their love of junk food, or even codependent relationships.
Learn more about the concept of willpower below, and how maximizing your willpower could take you exactly where you need to go in life:
What is Willpower, and Why Does It Matter?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), willpower speaks to your ability to resist short-term temptation or instant gratification to accomplish long-term objectives and goals. Willpower is a form of control over your own actions and behaviors.
Improving willpower correlates with positive outcomes in life, as it is a predictor of success in both personal and professional endeavors. Improving willpower can boost your self-esteem, help you stick to your diet, give you an advantage at excelling at your education, provide you with better financial security, lower your substance or alcohol use, and improve your overall health.
Some refer to willpower as self-discipline, which enables individuals to make positive, lasting changes. Moreover, willpower equates to having better self-control and inner strength, which could help you attain your goals despite mistakes made along the way. The nature of willpower is very complex and has been scrutinized by many researchers for years.
Many people want to have better willpower than they currently do. If this sounds like you, keep reading.
Improving Willpower: The Science of Self-Control
One of the earliest studies that delved into the concept of willpower was the marshmallow test in the 1960s, and you'll sometimes see the same experiment performed today on social media. In this test, a child is left alone in the room with one marshmallow. He is given explicit instructions not to touch it for 15 minutes. If he is willing to resist eating the treat, he can get a second marshmallow when the researcher returns. Children who participated in the test were re-evaluated after several years. Those kids who delayed gratification and exhibited strong willpower to enjoy a higher reward had better success in their adult lives.
These results indicate why it is essential to harness, nurture, strengthen and train willpower even at a young age. Many researchers believe willpower is akin to a muscle you can exercise, flex, and strengthen. However, this concept can get pretty confusing because Dr. Roy Baumeister says the will is like a muscle that also suffers from fatigue with heavy use. Willpower is not infinite! Willpower reserves could run out in a day if people engage in too many activities that require a lot of self-control.
Once people exhaust their willpower resources, what could result is poor performance of mental tasks. For example, this could mean succumbing to the temptation of junk food, embracing laziness (whether it’s avoiding tidying up or not working out), showing poor temperament control, or getting derailed by distractions such as binge-watching TV or playing video games instead of doing a work project or household tasks. The lack of willpower is dangerous because it could prevent you from achieving your goals, but it could also keep you rooted in bad habits that lead to an unhealthy lifestyle and poor mental health.
On the other hand, just like a physical muscle, it is crucial to train your willpower abilities regularly to make it stronger. Improving willpower means doing just the right amount of daily mental conditioning without overdoing it. Do things in moderation to prevent burnout and avoid morphing into a control freak who is too rigid.
In the context of self-discipline, this means giving yourself ample downtime daily. If your willpower becomes depleted, you need time to recover so your willpower muscle can restore and replenish its energy. Just like your muscles need recovery time after exercise. Thus, you can train willpower, and this suggests that you're not forever bound to those bad habits that are kind of ruining your life.
According to Kelly McGonigal Ph.D., professor at Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More Of It, willpower is not a virtue or an innate trait that individuals are born with. Instead, it is a mind-body response that could be impacted by environmental factors like stress, mood, and sleep. Hence, willpower is a biological function that you can improve through stress management, therapy, mindfulness, sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. Improving willpower means exercising self-control, which could enhance your health, boost happiness, improve your self-love, and promote better productivity.
Tips For Working Towards Improving Willpower
If you're working towards self-improvement, whether it's eating healthy, exercising regularly, reading more, quitting smoking, or learning a new language, it will take so much willpower to be effective and efficient enough to hit your targets. Sadly, some poor habits are tough to break since they appear ingrained in your system. You may start with good intentions but lose momentum and control along the way. Does this mean you're a lost cause?
The answer is an emphatic no. Anyone who puts their mind to it can improve their willpower and tap into this mental reservoir to expect better outcomes when setting their goals. Anyone who wants to change for the better and can see the bigger picture including the value of changing for the better, and employ willpower and do so. Improving willpower could encourage you to stay on track despite difficulties, help you avoid distractions, and forge new and healthier micro-habits. Keep reading for helpful tips on improving willpower, which will allow you to control your impulses, break some bad habits, and regain better self-control.
1. Avoid Making Too Many Decisions in One Day
If you're determined to maximize your willpower, it will help to minimize the number of decisions you make in a day. Limiting this means you would spend less energy on frivolous things and preserve it for what matters.
To illustrate, Mark Zuckerberg and former POTUS Barack Obama tend to wear the same clothes daily. It's a boring gray shirt, jeans for Zuckerberg, and the same suit all the time for Obama.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Barack explained his fashion choices: "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." Limiting your decision-making to important matters could prevent the depletion of your willpower reserves. After all, as Dr. Baumeister pointed out above, willpower is finite, and you only have so many willpower resources in a day.
2. Pay Attention and Be Mindful When You Make Important Decisions
To improve willpower, it is crucial to know when to make important decisions. If you’re a morning person, complex tasks or significant issues are better tackled early in the morning before "ego depletion" sets in. Depletion happens because people only have a set of mental energy for making decisions or exercising control in a day. It is for this very same reason that most executives hold important meetings in the morning instead of close to happy hour. Everyone tends to have a better headspace when fresh out of bed than when it's late in the day and close to going home.
By the same token, grocery stores have taken advantage of this depletion concept. Candy is often in the checkout lines to prey upon what's known as decision fatigue. After going through the aisles and making tons of decisions on what to buy, you find a Milky Way bar, and its quick energy boost looks more attractive than usual. If you want to exercise better willpower, it's critical to pay attention when making decisions.
3. Summon Willpower Through Meditation
Why do Buddhist monks always appear calm, serene, and in control? The answer is they take time to train their willpower through meditation. You can improve willpower by training yourself to sit quietly and provide yourself with some quiet thinking time or meditation, even if it means just starting with five minutes per day. Apart from being very relaxing, the art of medication can help you control your impulses, and it helps you become more self-aware, a critical factor in exercising willpower.
As Travis Bradberry expressed in Forbes, "Meditation actually trains your brain to become a self-control machine (and it improves your emotional intelligence). Even simple techniques like mindfulness, which involves taking as little as five minutes a day to focus on nothing more than your breathing and your senses, improves your self-awareness and your brain's ability to resist destructive impulses."
4. Prioritize Your Sleep
A person who lacks sleep feels groggy and lacks energy. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to act on impulse or follow their instincts instead of exercising willpower and making conscious decisions. A study from UC Berkeley suggests that insufficient sleep affects the brain since the brain cell's ability to absorb glucose is diminished. Matthew Walker, a professor, said, "What we have discovered is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified."
The part of the frontal lobe which helps with self-control is inhibited, while other parts associated with impulses are more active when you're sleepy. That's why a sleep-deprived person is more likely to succumb to junk food cravings or make a rash decision. Cravings are also amplified when you're sleepy because your body craves glucose or sugar to compensate. Make sleep a priority, and you'll feel refreshed, regain more control, and have boosted willpower upon waking up. Well-rested and calm individuals tend to listen to the rational part of the brain instead of the emotional one that falls for temptations.
5. Make Time For Exercise
People make resolutions to ‘exercise more’ every New Year and even pay for expensive gym memberships to inspire them to keep moving. However, they often only stay committed for a few weeks, and their willpower fizzles out, they lose momentum or whatever motivation they had due to the fresh start effect of the new year - so they quit. Lack of self-discipline and lack of motivation are the culprits because committing to exercise requires willpower. If you want to succeed in being physically active or achieving any other resolutions, exercise is a great way to train your willpower.
A study done at the University of Bristol showed that moving your body even for just ten minutes releases GABA. This is a neurotransmitter that soothes the brain and helps you control impulses. So if you're tempted to blow your top at an annoying co-worker or a cookie is begging to be eaten at your diet's expense, taking a short walk could keep this impulse under wraps. By the same token, doing small workouts and building up a little at a time could help you stick to your fitness resolutions. Start with ten minutes a day, then add more as your willpower improves. This could trick your brain into committing to an hour-long regular gym routine.
6. Fuel Your Brain with Healthy Foods
Dr. Baumeister's research revealed that decision-making and willpower are inextricably linked. Every time you tap into your willpower when making choices, you position the rational and emotional parts of your brain against each other. Unfortunately, individuals with poor diet and nutrition habits are more likely to make emotional choices when it comes to the food they put into their mouths, rather than their well-fed counterparts. The brain needs good foods and healthy fats (such as fatty fish or avocado) in order to function.
If you're serious about improving willpower reserves, nourish your brain with healthy food. You can start with baby steps, like swapping white rice for brown rice, regular pasta for whole-grain pasta, or swapping out your sugary honey-nut cheerios for plain. When you make tiny changes, your brain doesn't realize it, and you don't feel deprived. Eventually, when you fuel your brain with nutrient-dense foods, you also strengthen your willpower.
7. Track Your Progress and Reward Yourself
The human brain veers towards instant gratification (such as the dopamine hit of a candy bar or completing the next level of a video game). Our conditioning to be veered towards instant gratification is one of the primary reasons why willpower goes out the window. That's normal because it's easy to favor what's easy over something difficult. When you internalize this, it may become a lot easier for you when temptation abounds. It would help to break your goal into smaller baby steps and assign a planned reward for yourself after accomplishing each task, such as an episode of your show. This could help activate your willpower because keeping tabs on your progress motivates you to stick to your plan.
Moreover, having incentives as you track the baby steps offer encouragement to push you even on the most challenging days. Tracking your progress could keep you from throwing in the towel and giving up. For instance, try charting the number of days you haven't smoked, or create a log of the pounds you've lost. For the days you slip up and smoke one cig or overate, having this log book to look back on will show how far you've progressed and could prevent you from feeling like a failure.
Are You Ready to Flex Your Willpower?
It’s true that willpower is like a muscle that will become stronger with regular practice. However, just like weight training which warns against overexertion to prevent muscle fatigue and injuries, you must also use your willpower with discernment to avoid depleting your reserves. Don't train your willpower with significant decisions at first. Start with small ones. For example, instead of trying to suddenly eliminate sweet snacks to lose weight, start small by choosing fruit for a snack over a cookie thrice a week. Once you've mastered that, scale up to more days because you know you can do it since your willpower and self-control have improved.
To help you train your willpower, it could help to take an at-home DNA test to get to know your genetic strengths and weaknesses. A CircleDNA test provides you with hundreds of reports about yourself, from personality and behavior traits, to genetic talents and strengths, as well as weaknesses. For example, your DNA analysis may show that you're genetically more likely to have a sweet tooth and poor appetite control. Armed with this data, you can establish more realistic goals and make smarter decisions that support your willpower and decision-making. Small changes like this can help you stick with your plans and make changes for the long haul.
- What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control (American Psychological Association) https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/willpower
- ‘Willpower’ over the life span: decomposing self-regulation (Walter Mischel et.al.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3073393/
- Ego Depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? (Roy Baumeister et.al.) https://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Baumeister%20et%20al.%20%281998%29.pdf
- The Willpower Instinct (Penguin Books) https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/307869/the-willpower-instinct-by-kelly-mcgonigal/9781583335086
- The science of willpower (Leah Steakly) https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2011/12/29/a-conversation-about-the-science-of-willpower/
- Obama’s Way (Michael Lewis) https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama
- 11 Surprising Things That Affect Your Willpower And Decision Making (Drake Baer) https://www.businessinsider.com/things-that-affect-willpower-decision-making-2014-11
- Sleep-deprivation linked to junk food cravings (Yasmin Anwar) https://news.berkeley.edu/2013/08/06/poor-sleep-junk-food/
- The Six Secrets of Self-control (Travis Bradberry) https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2012/09/17/the-six-secrets-of-self-control/?sh=407f930642d4
- Work hacks: 7 rules to make your day more productive (Manaal Khurram) https://tribune.com.pk/story/1207517/work-hacks-7-rules-make-day-productive