Advertising
Advertising

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):

Advertising

“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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.”

Advertising

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

More by this author

The Simplest Ways to Stay Enthusiastic in Life (Even When You Are Drowning in Work) How To Increase Your Willpower? Just 10 Simple But Powerful Tricks Don’t be Discouraged if You Ever Feel Like you Fall Behind in Life Handling Criticism: 5 Tools to Help You Grow a Thick Skin

Trending in Productivity

1 How to Set Goals Effectively And Grow Continuously 2 How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day 3 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life 4 How to Commit, Achieve Excellence And Change Your Life 5 How to Stay Consistent and Realize Your Dreams

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on July 13, 2020

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

Advertising

As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

    Advertising

    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

    Advertising

    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

    Advertising

    It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    The Bottom Line

    Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

    When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

    More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

    Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

    Read Next