Everyone has something they’d like to change. The desire for self-improvement and progression is innate. It is in our DNA. Unfortunately, when it comes to change, old habits are hard to break, and it seems that we fail more often than we succeed. For those things that we struggle with, it also seems that our willpower is never quite enough. What can we do about this? Are we doomed to live the same behavioral patterns of the past? Can we actually increase our willpower, and create lasting positive changes in our lives? The answer is a resounding YES! Willpower is like a muscle and it gets stronger with regular use.
Recent research, as detailed in such books as, Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do About It by Kelly McGonigal, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, suggests that we are not forever bound to our poor habits, and that we can actually change, and increase our willpower in the process.
So how do we do it? How do we increase our willpower, and direct powerful changes in our lives? To assist in this process, I’ve summarized the research on the subject into 15 “actionable steps” that, if built into habits, will yield powerful results.
1. Feed our brains with regular, protein rich, meals
Don’t skip meals. Our brain is our decision making muscle and its ability to provide us with the necessary willpower to make correct decisions is influenced by whether it is sufficiently fed. So we should eat regular meals, ideally low-glycemic foods, healthy proteins, vegetables and complex carbohydrates, so that we can avoid the glucose rush (associated with sweets and simple carbs) that immediately plummets.
2. Keep it simple: work on one change at a time
Willpower can be increased, but it is a slow and gradual process (just like increasing muscle mass). So daily we are working with a fixed amount of it (although that amount can increase over time with practice). We can’t change everything all at one, and we can’t massively change our lives at stressful times. If we want to see real change, we should start small, and tackle one long term goal at a time.
3. Take a bite of dark chocolate for a quick energy boost
Sometimes we are in a position where we need to make a quick decision, and it feels tough. We should take a bite of dark chocolate. Seriously. The small energy boost will help our brains with the decision. Obviously, it is much better to eat healthy, slow burning foods to provide a steady source of fuel to our brains, but in the event of a “willpower” emergency, indulging a little isn’t a bad thing. It can actually help to increase our willpower.
4. Get a good nights sleep
Adequate rest improves our self-control and provides an optimal environment for the brain to function. Rest reduces the body’s need for glucose, and it allows the body to make better use of what we have. Adequate rest is generally 7-8 hours a night for an adult, and 10-12 hours a night for a child. Self-control requires brain power, and when we are tired, our bodies generally don’t deliver enough glucose to our brains.
5. Steer clear of temptation
People who have lots of self-control don’t need to exercise their willpower as often. Therefore, when willpower is required, it is strong and in steady supply. So we can increase our willpower by not putting ourselves in situations where willpower is required – steering completely clear of those “danger spots” where temptation is present and willpower is necessary.
6. Develop small but powerful habits
The research confirms that good habits strengthen our willpower. Even if we start with something simple – like making our beds – this can have a powerful positive effect on our willpower. This occurs because these small habits build self-discipline and self-control, and that spreads to other areas of our life.
7. Make sure our “to-do” list is manageable
Everyone has some form of a “to-do” list. We may not realize it, but this ubiquitous productivity tool may actually be increasing our stress, and decreasing our willpower. When we create endless lists, and leave tasks perpetually undone, our subconscious nags us about it, and we end up worrying far more than acting. When we do this, we get in a bad mood, and our emotional state plays into our ability to resist temptation.
8. Take frequent breaks
It is impossible to exercise perfect self-control all the time. We simply “run out” of willpower and end up making poor decisions if we don’t supplement ourselves with rest and breaks. Take a nap from time to time. Go grab a (healthy) bite to eat. Watch a little TV for a minute or two, and then get back to our tasks and goals. When we do this, we’ll be refreshed, we’ll have more willpower and we’ll produce better work.
9. Meditate for 5 minutes a day
Take 5 minutes and just focus on our breath. Detach, for only five minutes, from the chaos around us. Do we realize that every time our mind wanders and we have to get it back on track, we’re having to tap into our reservoir of willpower? The simple act of building self-awareness through mediation will help us in our impulse tendency. When we become “mindful,” we are also engaging that part of our brain that we need for willpower, rather than just letting our impulses take over.
10. Take it easy on the cocktails
This one should be glaringly obvious. Alcohol impairs our judgment, reduces our self-awareness, and impedes our willpower. So be mindful of how much you’ve had to drink when making decisions and try to avoid an excess amount if you’re in a situation where you have to exercise willpower.
11. Plan in advance how to deal with our temptations
Do we have a plan to deal with our temptations? When we see that donut on the counter of the lunch room at work, do we have a plan to avoid it? Don’t leave this answer to chance. Instead, write out an action plan however simple it may be. Having a pre-determined plan can significantly increase our willpower when presented with the temptation.
12. Remember why we are doing this, and what it will cost if we quit
What is the purpose of changing our behavior in the first place? What are we trying to accomplish? What will we lose if we give in to our bad habits? Why do we want to change? When we consistently remind ourselves of the answers to these questions our willpower is increased to stick to our plans.
13. Do the opposite of what we normally do
Every time we modify our routines, we are exercising self-control. The more that we can exercise self-control, the stronger our willpower will be. When we succeed in making small changes, we develop the ability to take on much larger ones. So start small. Consciously try to brush your teeth, eat, or open the door, with your non-dominant hand. It may feel very strange at first, but it actually goes a long way to increasing our willpower.
14. Choose a reward in advance
For a given change, if we first determine a reward in advance, our willpower to follow through on our change will be increased. Make it a game. Our brain is hardwired to pursue positive rewards. Don’t get down on yourself for the past. Just set a reward and make the change.
15. Anticipate roadblocks
Before we start down the path of a new goal, we should consider the roadblocks that may arise in our path. There is always resistance in the path of a positive pursuit. When we anticipate them in advance, when they actually arise, we have stronger willpower to deal with them (since we’ve already contemplated them arising). We aren’t struck by surprise, we are simply encountering something that was part of the original plan.
Both web and mobile apps have been incredibly useful in these three areas. Let me share my favorites in the hopes that you can free up some of your time and mind space, too. 25 Apps to Help You Hack Productivity & WillpowerFeatured photo credit: Man mountaineering with his ski-touring equipment .via Shutterstock