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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 January 21, 2020

What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

Do you think of yourself as a creative person? Do you play the drums or do watercolor paintings? Perhaps compose songs or direct plays? Can you even relate to any of these so called ‘creative’ experiences? Growing up, did you ever have that ‘artistic’ sibling or friend who excelled in drawing, playing instruments or literature? And you maybe wondered why you can’t even compose a birthday card greeting–or that drawing stick figures is the furthest you’ll ever get to drawing a family portrait. Many people have this common assumption that creativity is an inborn talent; only a special group of people are inherently creative, and everyone else just unfortunately does not have that special ability. You either have that creative flair or instinct, or you don’t. But, this is far from the truth! So what is creativity?

Can I Be Creative?

The fact is, that everyone has an innate creative ability. Despite what most people may think, creativity is a skill that everyone can learn and hone on. It’s a skill with huge leverage that allows you to generate enormous amounts of value from relatively little input. How is that so? You’ll have to start by expanding your definition of creativity. Ironically, you have to be creative and ‘think out of the box’ with the definition! Creativity at its heart, is being able to see things in a way that others cannot. It’s a skill that helps you find new perspectives to create new possibilities and solutions to different problems. So, if you encounter different challenges and problems that need solving on a regular basis, then creativity is an invaluable skill to have.Let’s say, for example, that you work in sales. Having creativity will help you to look for new ways to approach and reach out to potential customers. Or perhaps you’re a teacher. In this role you have to constantly look for new ways to deliver your message and educate your students.

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How Creativity Works

Let me break another misconception about creativity, which is that it’s only used to create completely “new” or “original” things. Again, this is far from the truth. Because nothing is ever completely new or original. Everything, including works of art, doesn’t come from nothing. Everything derives from some sort of inspiration. That means that creativity works by connecting things together in order to derive new meaning or value.From this perspective, you can see a lot of creativity in action. In technology, Apple combines traditional computers with design and aesthetics to create new ways to use digital products. In music, a musician may be inspired by various styles of music, instruments and rhythms to create an entirely new type of song. All of these examples are about connecting different ideas, finding common ground amongst the differences, and creating a completely new idea out of them.

What Really Is Creativity?

Creativity Needs an Intention

Another misconception about the creative process is that you can just be in a general “creative” state. Real creativity isn’t about coming up with “eureka!” moments for random ideas. Instead, to be truly creative, you need to have a direction. You have to ask yourself this question: “What problem am I trying to solve?” Only by knowing the answer to this question can you start flexing your creativity muscles. Often times, the idea of creativity is associated with the ‘Right’ brain, with intuition and imagination. Hence a lot of focus is placed on the ‘Right’ brain when it comes to creativity. But, to get the most out of creativity, you need to utilize both sides of your brain–Right and Left–which means using the analytical and logical part of your brain, too. This may sound surprising to you, but creativity has a lot to do with problem solving. And, problem solving inherently involves logic and analysis. So instead of throwing out the ‘Left’ brain, full creativity needs them to work in unison. For example, when you’re looking for new ideas, your ‘Left’ brain will guide you to a place of focus, which is based on your objective behind the ideas you’re searching for. The ‘Right’ brain then guides you to gather and explore based on your current focus. And when you decide to try out these new ideas, your ‘Right’ brain will give you novel solutions outside of the ones you already know. Your ‘Left’ brain then helps you evaluate and tune the solutions to work better in practice. So, logic and creativity actually work hand in hand, and not one at the expense of the other.

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Creativity Is a Skill

At the end of the day, creativity is a skill. It’s not some innate or natural born talent that some have over others. What this means is that creativity and innovation can be practiced and improved upon systematically.A skill can be learned and practiced by applying your strongest learning styles. Want to know what your learning style is? Try this test. A skill can be measured and improved through a Feedback Loop, and can be continuously upgraded over time by regular practice. Through regular practice, your creativity goes through different stages of proficiency. This means that you can become more and more creative! If you never thought that creativity was relevant to you, or that you don’t have a knack for being creative… think again! You can use creativity in any aspect of your life. In fact you should use it, as it will allow you to to break through your usual loop, get you out of your comfort zone, and inspire you to grow and try new things. Creativity will definitely give you an edge when you’re trying to solve a problem or come up with new solutions.

Start Connecting the Dots

Excited to start honing your creativity? Here at Lifehack, we’ve got a wealth of knowledge to help you get started. We understand that creativity is a matter of connecting things together in order to derive new meaning or value. So, if you want to learn how to start connecting the dots, check out these tips:

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Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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