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How To Increase Your Willpower? Just 10 Simple But Powerful Tricks

How To Increase Your Willpower? Just 10 Simple But Powerful Tricks

The box of cookies was staring at me from the cupboard. Even though I was full from lunch, I wanted one so badly, I could almost hear the little red devil standing on my left shoulder, telling me to go for it. My hand reached toward the box…

But then another voice spoke up, that of the little angel standing on my other shoulder, reminding me of my goal to fit into my wedding dress.

Later, up in my office, those same imaginary characters appeared again as I struggled to write a blog post. “You can do it!” said the little angel, “Just stick with it! You’ll get through this block!”

On my other shoulder, meanwhile, the little devil whispered in my ear to take a break. “Why don’t you go downstairs for a cookie break?” he said, “What will it hurt?”

These are two classic examples of willpower challenges, and if you’re anything like me, those kinds of internal conversations happen on a daily basis.

As Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes in her book The Willpower Instinct, willpower is essentially a competition between two parts of yourself: the version of you that goes for the long-term goal, and the version that goes for gratifying immediate impulses. Depending on your stress level, your energy, and your mindset, your brain is going to meet any willpower challenge in a different way.

If all we ever did was gratify our immediate impulses, not much of value would ever get done (plus we’d probably all be 500 pounds!), so it goes without saying that willpower plays a huge role in determining our success in life — including our physical health, relationships, financial security and professional success.

So if willpower is so important, what can we do to get more of it? Lots, it turns out!

Physiology of Willpower

Recent advances in neuroscience have mapped willpower to three distinct areas of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex (PFC):

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“I will” power: This resides in the upper left side of the PFC, which helps you stick with boring, difficult or stressful tasks.

“I won’t” power:  This resides in the upper right side of the PFC, which helps you say “no” to the cookie, the illicit sexual encounter, the temptation to check your text messages while driving…

“I want” power: Located in the middle of the PFC and lower down, this section keeps track of your goals and desires. It remembers what you really want, and the more rapidly its cells fire, the more motivated you are to take action or resist temptation.

These three areas of the brain together form your willpower, and when these areas of your grey matter are underfueled or underactive, your impulsive, “lizard brain” takes over. Nothing worthwhile gets done, and the things that do get done are ones you’ll later regret…

Knowing that an underfueled PFC wreaks all kinds of havoc, what can you do to fuel up these regions of the brain and make sure your willpower is working for you? Start with these four willpower boosters, which are aimed at ensuring that your brain’s frontal region is operating at its peak:

1. Get enough sleep.

Have you ever noticed how easily distracted you are after a sleepless night? “You can sleep when you’re dead,” the saying goes, but the truth is, when you don’t get at least 8 hours, the willpower parts of your PFC shut down, and the impulsive centers of the brain become over active, which makes it almost impossible to stay on task. A good night’s sleep helps make the prefrontal cortex better able to regulate the systems of the brain that direct you toward immediate gratification.

2. Meditate.

Meditation makes the systems of the brain that control willpower work more efficiently. More than that, though, it actually makes these parts of the brain bigger and better-connected to the regions that they’re supposed to be controlling!

Even just 10 minutes a day of meditation for a couple of months, or a couple of months of regular exercise has been shown to literally grow the prefrontal cortex. You’re literally changing the physiology of your willpower!

3. Move your body (ie, exercise)

We tend to think of exercise as something that’s good for our muscles and bones, but it turns out it’s just as important for our brains! Just like with meditation, even a couple of months of regular exercise will make the parts of the brain that control willpower bigger, denser, and better connected, making it easier for you to say no to distractions and yes to what you really want.

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4. Eat a low-glycemic, plant-based diet.

Big spikes and drops in blood sugar levels wreak havoc with how the brain uses energy, and according to research, shifting to a more plant-based diet actually changes how the brain functions. Research suggests that a vegan diet has the most powerful effect, but any dietary shift toward low-glycemic and/or plant-based will help.

Willpower as a Muscle

The four tips above will go a long way toward boosting your willpower, but there are lots of other things that help, too.

Willpower is “like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but it also gets fatigued with use,” says John Tierney, co-author of Willpower, with Roy F. Baumeister. Anything that requires self-control will fatigue your willpower muscle, so you have less self-control for any other willpower challenge that pops up.

If your boss ticks you off and you exercise your self-control not to blow your top, for example, your willpower muscle has less in reserve. Now when you go home, instead of making yourself a salad as you’d planned, you’re that much more likely to opt for the leftover cheesecake instead. Or if your spouse or child does something irritating, you’ll find it much harder to keep your cool.

The good news is, just like a real muscle, you can make your willpower stronger! The next four tricks have to do with either strengthening your willpower muscle, or helping to prevent it from being fatigued in the first place.

5. Do the most important thing first.

When you wake up in the morning after a good night’s sleep, your willpower muscle is at its peak strength. As your self-control is taxed throughout the day, your reserve of self-control will go down, so if there’s something really important that you want to get done — especially if it’s something that requires willpower to accomplish — you’re best off to do it as early in the day as possible.

As I like to say, “The thing I do first is the thing that gets done.”

6. Make it a habit.

When something is a true habit, it fires on its own, and doesn’t require willpower for you to make it happen. For example, I don’t have to mentally arm wrestle myself into brushing my teeth at night — I do it without thinking. If you can turn something into a regular routine, you’ll be saving your willpower reserves for other things, effectively boosting your willpower quotient.

7. Take on a willpower workout.

If you want to strengthen a muscle in your body, you use it. It’s the same for the metaphorical muscle of willpower: people who exercise their willpower frequently often have better self-control.

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In Willpower, Tierney cites one study in which students were asked to watch their posture for a week. At the end of the week, those students performed better on self-control tasks — tasks that had nothing to do with sitting up straight — than students who had not been exercising control all week.

Other ideas for working out your willpower muscle include not using contractions when you speak, only speaking in complete sentences, saying no instead of nah or yes instead of yeah, or avoiding the use of profanities. “All these things require mental effort,” says Tierney, “And the more you do that, the more it builds up that muscle.”

8. Change your environment.

If something is constantly tempting you, it drains your willpower. If you’re trying to avoid eating unhealthy snacks, for example, simply putting candy or junk food where you can see it next to you will deplete your willpower. On the other hand, as Tierney says, “putting it away in a drawer or putting it across the room makes it easier for you because you’re not actively resisting the temptation.”

One well-known study found that hungry students who were forced to resist the temptation of eating chocolate chip cookies did not perform as well on subsequent tests of focus and self-control as students who had not been asked to previously exercise restraint. Simply keeping temptations out of sight can go a long way to keeping your willpower muscle from getting fatigued.

In a similar vein, if there’s something you want to accomplish, you can change your environment so you need to use less willpower to do it. For example, I know a guy who wanted to establish a daily running habit, but once he was up and out of bed and on with his day, he just couldn’t switch gears to put on his running clothes.

His solution: he went to sleep in his running clothes and left his shoes and socks on the floor next to the bed. Now when he wakes up in the morning, he puts his shoes on first thing and runs right out the door, with almost no willpower required!

A Counter-Intuitive Willpower Trick

9. Practice self-compassion.

Conventional wisdom would say that liberal doses of self-criticism are necessary to whip ourselves into shape. Spare the metaphorical rod, spoil the child, as it were. But conventional wisdom is wrong.

Study after study has shown that when you experience a setback to a willpower challenge, self-compassion will beat out self-criticism every time.

As McGonigal says in this Psychology Today article, research subjects “who practiced a self-compassionate mindset [rather than beating themselves up] showed greater willingness to learn from and improve on their self-perceived weakness, mistake, or failure.”

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In another study quoted by McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct, women dieters were invited to a lab, ostensibly to taste test some candies. In reality, they were subjects in an experiment on willpower and self-compassion.

Upon entering the lab, the women were asked to choose a donut from a tray and eat it, then drink a big glass of water (in order to make them feel uncomfortably full). They were then taken to a room with different kinds of candies, and told to eat as much as they wanted. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the candies had been carefully weighed by the researchers in advance, so they’d know exactly how much each woman ate.

Before being shown into the “candy tasting” room, half the women were given a simple self-compassion intervention, something like, “We’ve noticed that a lot of women feel really badly after eating the donut. Please remember that we asked you to do it, and everyone breaks their diet sometimes, so don’t be too hard on yourself.”

Exhibiting the classic “What the Hell Effect,” the women who didn’t get the self-compassion intervention binged on the candy, whereas the women who got the self-compassion intervention ended up eating one third the amount of candy as the control group!

So the next time you fail at a willpower challenge, remember that you’re human, leave the rod behind and and treat yourself the way you would a beloved friend.

And one final tip:

10. Surround yourself with people who are doing the thing you want to do.

McGonigal shares in The Willpower Instinct that one of the biggest factors determining whether you’ll be overweight and out of shape is whether your friends and family are overweight and out of shape. Much as we might like to think of ourselves as mavericks, it turns out that human beings really like to feel normal, so much so that we’ll unconsciously take on unhealthy behaviors in order to be like everyone else.

The reverse is also true, however: if the people you’re close to are healthy and fit, statistically you’re likely to be the same.

And this doesn’t just apply to health and fitness. As McGonigal writes, “Surrounding yourself with people who share your commitment to your goals will make it feel like the norm,” and hence make you more likely to stick with your commitment!

Whatever your goal, you’ll increase your willpower simply by finding or creating a tribe of fellows.

How to Become a Willpower Wonder

So there you have it: ten tips to increase your willpower. Pick one to try out this week and see what happens. Once you’ve incorporated one of these tricks into your life, pick another one to add, and pretty soon you’ll be a willpower wonder!

Featured photo credit: Working Writers Club via workingwritersclub.com

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Last Updated on December 2, 2019

How to Develop Mental Toughness And Stay Strong

How to Develop Mental Toughness And Stay Strong

Are you the kind of person who wants to achieve massive success in your life? Do you have the mental toughness to make that happen?

I think we can all agree that no matter your ambitions, achieving success can be difficult; and over time, the daily grind can take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional energy.

Achievers and high performers from all walks of life face ups and downs along the path to success—they face failure, burnout, discouragement, fatigue, self-limiting beliefs, stress, and so much more.

How do some people continually strive towards their personal goals year after year while others give up on them? How do those people stay strong and persevere when there is so much stacked against them?

Studies now show that mental strength is a critical key to success. If you haven’t read Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, you should. In it, she shows that “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls ‘grit.’” In other words, mental toughness plays a significant role when it comes to achieving goals.

Sometimes, our goals wear us down and leave us feeling exhausted. Other times, our goals get difficult, and success seems impossible, so we lose hope, become discouraged, and want to quit.

At its core, mental toughness is simply the ability to stick to something when the going gets tough. People with high levels of mental toughness can push beyond these obstacles and forge a path towards success while those with lower levels of mental toughness may abandon their dreams.

Want to know the good news?

No matter who you are, what you’ve been told, or what you currently believe, you can develop the mental toughness you need to be successful.

All you need to do is learn to develop a positive mindset, focus on your why, and utilize the people around you for support.

1. Develop a Positive Mindset

If you’re going to increase your mental toughness, the first thing you have to do is focus on building a strong, positive mindset.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average person has 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% of those thoughts repeat each day and, on average, 80% of repeated ideas are negative.[1]

That’s roughly 45,600 negative thoughts per day!

Carrying around these negative thoughts is like going on a hike in the mountains with a backpack full of rocks. The hike is hard enough on its own, but having extra junk weighing you down is a recipe for failure.

Sometimes, building mental toughness isn’t as much about building new strength as it is about saving your strength for the right tasks. Wouldn’t it be easier to dump the rocks out of the backpack instead of trying to get strong enough to carry the extra weight?

Absolutely!

But how can we learn to spot those 45,600 negative thoughts and get rid of them? How can we empty our metaphorical backpack?

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Well, it gets a whole lot easier if you know what you’re looking for. Some of the most prominent types of negative thoughts are self-limiting beliefs, all-or-nothing thinking, and dwelling.

Let Go of Self-Limiting Beliefs

It’s pretty hard to be mentally tough when you’re constantly beating yourself up. Self-limiting beliefs are any beliefs that hold you back in some way. Here are some examples:

“I’m not smart enough to…”

“I don’t have enough experience to…”

“I’ve tried that before, and it didn’t go well, so I must just be bad at…”

When we allow these self-limiting beliefs to flood our minds, negative self-talk runs rampant, and we crowd out our ability to think positively. We’re effectively working against ourselves.

If you want to keep your mind strong on your path to success, you have to overcome the self-limiting beliefs that are holding you back by realizing one key truth: self-limiting beliefs are thoughts, not facts.

When you recognize a self-limiting belief cropping up in your mind, quickly silence it by telling yourself that it’s not true and then back that up with some positive affirmations:

  • “I am smart enough; I may just need to do some more research first.”
  • “I may not have as much experience as someone else, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. I have enough experience to get started. I’ll figure the rest out on the way.”
  • “Just because I failed at this last time doesn’t mean I’m going to fail this time. My past does not dictate my future.”

Get Rid of the All-or-Nothing Thinking

Another form of negative thinking that could be preventing you from building mental toughness is all-or-nothing thinking.

All-or-nothing thinking is the concept of thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally awful. If you’re not perfect, then you’re a failure.

But this isn’t true!

If you’re trying to lose 30 pounds and only lost 28, isn’t that still better than not losing any weight at all? I’d say so!

If you allow all-or-nothing thinking to rule your mind, you’ll be on cloud nine when you succeed, but you’ll beat yourself up when you “fail.” Acknowledging the shades of gray in between will allow you to see success more often and it will help you celebrate your smaller wins.

When you recognize an all-or-nothing thought, remember to look for the positive in the situation. What did you gain by trying? What would you have missed out on had you not tried? Could you do better if you were to try again?

Ditch the Dwelling

Self-Limiting Beliefs and All-or-Nothing Thinking can lead to a bad case of dwelling on the negative. If you want to build some mental toughness and keep your mind strong, you have to ditch the dwelling.

Every day, bad things happen to each of us, and while there’s nothing we can do to prevent that, we can control how we react to these situations.

When we dwell on our misfortunes, we waste massive amounts of energy that we could be using to achieve our goals. When this happens, we’re more likely to quit altogether.

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But that doesn’t mean you’re not mentally tough; it just means you’re misusing your energy.

The next time something bad happens, it’s important to allow yourself to feel the disappointment and frustration, but work on reducing the amount of time you dwell on the situation.

Easier said than done, right? Try these:

  1. Call a friend or mentor and talk it through with them. Get some outside perspective on your situation.
  2. Time block your dwelling by allowing yourself to dwell for no more than one hour.
  3. Then, tell yourself to move on, that you’re human, and you’re allowed to make mistakes or experience setbacks.
  4. If all else fails, find a good way to distract yourself until you can calm down and reexamine things with a clear mind.

The faster you can focus on the positives and move past the problem, the quicker you can get back to achieving success in your life.

Be Patient about the Process

No matter which negative thoughts tend to run around your mind, working to replace them with positive thoughts can take time.

Learning to spot self-limiting beliefs, all-or-nothing thinking, or dwelling is one thing, but learning to quiet those thoughts is another thing entirely.

If at first you don’t succeed, don’t fret. Instead, take a deep breath and try again. As you work towards improving your mindfulness and your mental toughness, remember that you’re going to get better with time.

To make things a little easier, it helps to connect with your purpose.

2. Connect with Your Purpose

One of the most critical elements to building mental toughness and keeping a strong and focused mind is having a strong ‘why’ for everything you want to do.

If you set out to achieve a huge goal that you don’t have a ‘why’ for, you’re going to find yourself distracted, discouraged, or disengaged as soon as you experience your first setback.

Think about the last time you were working on a goal or resolution and things weren’t going well, maybe you even wanted to quit. Perhaps you thought you didn’t have enough willpower. Maybe you told yourself that you didn’t have enough discipline.

Here’s the truth: you just didn’t have a strong enough why.

Simon Sinek has been spreading his message “Start with Why” across the globe.[2] In short, he says that:

“Your ‘why’ is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you.”

One of the biggest drains on your mental energy is pursuing a goal or a task that you don’t have a ‘why’ for. This is when we tend to look for external motivation or question our willpower, but those aren’t the issues.

Often, we set goals because we like the idea of the goal, not the reality of the goal. Without connecting to our why, we can’t intrinsically motivate ourselves to achieve our most challenging goals.

Find Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is our innate desire to do something and it comes when we work towards something that satisfies ourselves above all else—not our parents or our bosses or our teachers.

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Let’s say you think you want to quit smoking because you know it’s bad for you, but you really enjoy smoking. If you don’t truly want to quit smoking, it’s going to be nearly impossible, regardless of your willpower or mental toughness.

But if you want to quit smoking because you just had a baby, and you don’t want your baby growing up around smoke, then that ‘why’ is going to give you intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than sheer stubborn willpower, and it’s far easier to maintain over the long haul.

If you’re trying to develop mental toughness, connecting a why to everything you want to achieve will reduce the effort and energy it will take to achieve those things. Once you’ve found a strong why for all of your goals, you’ll find that you’ll have significantly more energy to pursue your more difficult challenges.

3. Find Strength in Unity

The final aspect of developing mental toughness is embracing the idea that you’re not in this alone. It’s a fact, anyone who’s ever achieved success in anything didn’t do so alone.

Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft alone. Oprah didn’t build her network by herself. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone without a team. Michelle Obama didn’t implement the “Let’s Move” campaign on her own.

Behind all of these successful people were countless other people who were there offering support, mentorship, guidance, and encouragement.

If you want to develop unmatched mental toughness, you need to understand that you don’t have to go it alone. Even the toughest Navy Seals have a team backing them up.

If you want to stay strong in your endeavors, you need to build a team of supporters who will step in and back you up when it counts.

Find a Mentor or Committee of Mentors

The benefits of having a great mentor are far too many to list, but to boil it down to the basics, a mentor is someone who will help show you the path to success.

A good mentor will help you discover your greatest strengths, spot and overcome your blind spots, and work through your weaknesses.

If you’re struggling to deal with your internal negativity or with finding your purpose, talk it through with a mentor. Sometimes we lose the forest for the trees, and a mentor can help us take a step back and see the bigger picture.

Here’s how to find the right mentor for yourself: How to Find a Mentor That Will Help You Succeed

Recruit Some Cheerleaders

If you want to stay strong, it never hurts to have a group of personal cheerleaders. Unlike mentors who are going to jump in and help you address your problems, a group of cheerleaders will help keep your spirits up.

Even if you have a strong ‘why’ and a positive mindset, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a positive attitude 100% of the time. It doesn’t make you weak to need some help from time to time. Having a group of people cheering you on will make all the difference in the world.

As you work towards your goals, tell a few close friends about what you’re doing, and when things get tough, tell them about it. And when they give you the pep talk you need, don’t resist their positivity or counter it with your self-limiting beliefs or your all-or-nothing attitude.

Allow their optimism to refill your energy and use that energy to press on.

Form an Accountability Group

Cheerleaders are great, but sometimes we need someone to give us the kick we need to keep going. You might have a strong ‘why’ for running a marathon or losing 30 pounds, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy; and trying to force yourself to follow through is a sure way to tax your mental energy.

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Why not save some of your mental energy by forming an accountability group?

Find a person or a few people who have similar goals, or at the very least, the need for an accountability partner. Then, form an agreement within the group to push each other every day.

Even if your goals aren’t the same, accountability partners are great for giving us the push we need when we need it most.

Regardless of which relationships you choose, sometimes we have to be able to work through things on our own. Mentors, cheerleaders, and accountability partners are a great way for us to combat our naturally negative mindsets, but occasionally we have to be able to pick ourselves back up.

4. Learn to Pick Yourself Back Up After Setbacks

Building a strong mindset and developing mental toughness isn’t easy! Anyone who’s ever achieved massive success knows that obstacles, setbacks, and failure are inevitable, and you’re no different.

As you work on your goals, you’re going to face many ups and downs, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t have mental toughness, willpower, or discipline.

We all struggle. We all fail. It’s what we decide to do after we fail that truly counts.

When you find yourself in a low spot, ask yourself these questions:

  • “Am I being too hard on myself?”
  • “Are negative thoughts such as Self-Limiting Beliefs or All-or-Nothing Thinking distorting my view?”
  • “What’s the positive side of this setback/obstacle/failure?”
  • “Why was this goal important to me? What was my purpose?”
  • “Is this goal still important to me? Do I still have a ‘why’?”
  • “Who can I ask for help? Who can mentor me or cheer me on? Who can help hold me accountable?”

Asking yourself these questions is a great way to check in on your mindset. When we get lost in negative thinking or lose connection to our purpose, it’s far too easy to become discouraged. When we feel discouraged, we start feeling weak, maybe even a little hopeless.

Also, this article provides some useful tips to help you get back on track: How to Deal with Failure and Pick Yourself Back Up

Tying it All Together

Are you still with me? I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, from developing a positive mindset and combatting your internal voice to connecting with purpose and building a committee of mentors. It’s a lot to take it!

But here’s the bottom line:

A crucial part of developing mental toughness is learning to recognize these tendencies and taking action to correct them early on. Developing mental toughness is not about eliminating weakness, but learning how to deal with it and overcome it.

No one is perfect, but when we focus on the right things, we can develop a mental toughness worthy of life’s biggest challenges.

More About Mental Strength

Featured photo credit: Zulmaury Saavedra via unsplash.com

Reference

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