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):
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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