Two things human beings consistently want more of: money and willpower. Lack of willpower manifests from the smallest moments of our days (getting out of bed in the morning) to the largest decisions of our lives (deciding once and for all to get healthy).
While we can barely get ourselves to do the dishes, the happiest people have what seem to be unlimited amounts of inner drive keeping their engines revved. But just like any other muscle, we can grow our willpower muscle and lift out of even our heaviest habits. Here’s how:
1. Use the Six Month Rule
The rule in our household is simple: for very expensive, luxurious, unnecessary item we want to buy, we wait six months. If we still want the thing in six months, we’ll have the money for it and if we don’t want it in six months, we’ve just saved our closet yet another piece of unloved junk.
In the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney report “People who had told themselves Not now, but later were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups…” Knowing you’re just delaying gratification is more a bolster to willpower than a simple, flat no.
2. Decide to Decide
That’s some of the best advice I have ever heard. Decide to decide. It means don’t put off making a decision – get a wedding invitation in the mail? Check yes or no and send it back immediately. When you make clear decisions more often, you limit your mind’s ability to be thrown off later when the decisions start to pile up. If there are easy decisions you can make right now, make them and give your mind more mojo for later when your willpower is really tested.
3. Build an Armor for Stress
According to one study, we fall back on habits in times of stress – whether they are good or bad habits is up to us. To build an armor of good habits against stress means we have to practice those good habits daily. Fortifying your willpower by practicing incremental, small habits every day, as simple as putting your sneakers by your bed so you can step right into them for an early morning run, means that when tough times hit (and they will) your stress response will rely on that healthy habit instead of a negative one.
4. Do It For Yourself and No One Else
What is it about our mothers telling us to eat our spinach like Popeye that makes us take such displeasure in spinach? I’m convinced we all started liking spinach when people stopped telling us to like spinach. And researchers agree, they found that when people chose to exert self-control for purely personal reasons they were far more likely to succeed on self-control tests than those practicing self-control because of outside influence.
5. Imagine Having the Willpower You Want
We all know the cliche mind over matter, but what happens when we actually put it into practice? In one study, imaginations were tested by asking three groups of participants watching a movie to either imagine they ate a lot of candy, imagine they had none, or imagine they resisted eating candy during the movie but had it later. According to this article, the study observed the last group who imagined resisting the candy as much less likely to go for it later. They imagined having more willpower and so grew some extra reserves of it.
6. Take a Nap
You heard me. Go to sleep. Baumeister writes, “Rest is good. In general, self-control problems and difficulties seem to show up with people who don’t get enough sleep. The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen.” You know that craving late at night for that midnight snack? Your body is exhausted and mildly (or majorly) stressed and it craves comfort, not the Doritos. Grab for your pillow before you grab for that extra snack.
7. Put Your Mental Energy Into What is Working
Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Concentrating on what doesn’t work for you keeps you from concentrating on what does work. When we think so much about how we are failing, how we are lacking willpower and how much we want that cookie, we’re missing the mental opportunity to reinforce thoughts of progress and how good it actually feels to be healthy.
8. Be Nice to Yourself.
You’re not choosing to do the easy thing. You’re choosing to do the hard thing. So understand that this won’t feel normal, natural or effortless. It’s going to require some resilience and some acknowledgement that you won’t be perfect. Learning how to stay in the game is the first step to hardwiring your willpower for keeps.
9. Get in the Mood.
Feeling depressed, anxious and irritable is no way to enact lasting change. To get those deep reserves of willpower bolstered up, you need to make sure your moods are helping you rather than hurting you. Getting your sleep regulated and predictable allows your mood to settle back to normal, making you more likely to practice the willpower you crave.
Willpower requires fortitude and you don’t want to lose all your momentum by trying to change too many things at once. Make one change at a time and build from there. Baumeister says, “People will make five New Years’ resolutions. Each time you work on one, you’re taking away your capacity to work on the other. You don’t have any more willpower magically. You have the same amount.” One accomplishment will be encouragement enough to make the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Don’t deplete your resources, grow them bit by bit.