10 Ways to Increase Your Willpower and Be More Successful

by Carrie Kirby on 21 January 2014 0 comments

Now that the holidays are over, many of us are setting our sights on self-improvement goals. Whether your goal involves fitness, career advancement, or just clearing off your desk by Tax Day, you'll need one thing to reach it: willpower. (See also: 9 Ways to Maintain Motivation)

In fact, willpower may be the most important attribute that determines our success in life. The famous "marshmallow test" in the 1960s showed that preschoolers who could delay gratification for 15 minutes went on to score higher on their SATs and have fewer weight and drug problems in adult life. Another study showed that children who exhibit self control are less likely to become criminals and have better finances as adults. Willpower means not just resisting foods that we want to eat, but the ability to apply ourselves even if we'd rather give up and watch TV. (See also: Delayed Gratification and Willpower)

So what if you've always been short on willpower? You're not doomed. Researchers are learning that willpower is like a muscle that can be cultivated through exercise and enhanced by ideal conditions. Here's how.

1. Hack Your Brain

The original marshmallow test researcher, Stanford University's Walter Mischel, taught some of his subjects mental tricks, such as pretending that the marshmallow they were supposed to resist was just a picture. These tricks enabled kids who couldn't wait even a minute to hold out for the whole time.

2. Practice

Those of us who exercise our willpower regularly are able to perform better when it counts. You might practice by performing low-stakes challenges, such as not allowing yourself to hit up Facebook until after you've worked for two hours. (See also: 6 Tools That Stop Computer Distractions)

"Willpower is something that you cultivate over the years, by regular exercise and self-discipline," Roy Baumeister, author of "Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength," told The Atlantic.

3. But Don't Practice Too Much

On the other hand, scientists have shown that our willpower is a finite resource that can be used up for the day, in a phenomenon known as ego depletion. In one study, some test subjects were asked to resist eating chocolate chip cookies. After completing this act of willpower, they gave up more easily when asked to solve difficult puzzles.

But how can you practice your willpower without risking depleting it? Exercise self-control daily, but don't overdo it by expecting yourself to perform perfectly on every challenge you meet. Focus on what's most important to you, and cut yourself some slack on other things. And Baumeister recommends setting up good habits — once you are in a routine of getting up early, you don't have to tap into your willpower to do it, so that willpower is still available to apply to a different task. (See also: 15 Small Healthy Habits)

4. Feed It If You Need It

Glucose is the brain's food, and studies have found that exercising self-control burns a lot of fuel, so that, unsurprisingly, self-mastery is harder with low blood sugar. But recent studies found that it's more complicated than that, with a person's beliefs about willpower seeming to have a powerful influence, too. People who believe that willpower is limited performed better at tests after consuming a sugary drink, while people who believe that willpower is self-renewing did not need the drink.

All this is even more complicated if the thing you need willpower to do is avoid sweets. How can you exert willpower to avoid sugar if you need sugar to exert willpower?

One strategy would be to pay attention to yourself. Are you able to continue exerting willpower even if you get a little hungry? If so, carry on. If not, maybe a healthy snack would be better brain fuel than a can of soda. And it wouldn't hurt to try and convince yourself that you can do it without the extra fuel. (See also: Sweet and Salty Homemade Snacks)

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5. Give It a Rest

It's well documented that disrupted or shortened sleep saps willpower. That's believed to be one of the reasons that people who don't get enough sleep tend to gain weight.

6. Lead Yourself Not Into Temptation

If willpower is a finite resource, it makes sense to conserve it by helping yourself along. In the marshmallow test, some successful kids covered their eyes, so they couldn't see the treat, or distracted themselves with another activity (like kicking the desk, which doesn't sound very fun, but they didn't have much to work with).

In real life, you can help yourself succeed by avoiding temptation. Avoid buying the junk food treats that you know will tempt you late at night. Get the workout out of the way early so you're not tempted to skip it when you're tired after work. Put your smartphone away in a drawer if seeing it on your desk distracts you from work. And when you set a goal, think about what your roadblocks will be so you can address them in advance. (See also: How to Make Goals Manageable)

7. Take Care

If you want your car to perform well, of course you take good care of it. We can also get better performance out of ourselves if we practice self care. Self care could mean the occasional Nutella crepe, but it also means learning methods for managing stress (which can sap the energy you need for self control), meditating, and getting enough exercise.

8. Tell Yourself You're Good Enough...

...you're smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.

It may feel dopey, but research has shown that self affirmations can reverse ego depletion.

9. Be Accountable

It's easy to skip a morning run if it's only yourself you're letting down. Make a date with a workout partner — or a study buddy, or what have you — so you know there's someone waiting for you to begin the activity you're forcing yourself to do.

Another way of increasing accountability is to make your resolve known publicly. This is why we take our wedding vows in front of a crowd of loved ones: It's harder to break promises when all our friends and family know we've made them. So go ahead and sign up for one of those workout tracker sites that announce your goals on social media. It'll be really embarrassing if you slack off after making such a big deal about it — and that's the point. (See also: 5 Ways to Keep Yourself Accountable)

10. Keep an Eye on Yourself — Literally

Self-awareness is key to exercising willpower, because we commit a lot of our bad habits while barely aware that we're doing them. When you make your goals, also make a plan for paying attention to, or even recording what you're actually doing. This might mean eating in front of a mirror, as Baumeister suggests in his Atlantic interview, or it could mean keeping track of your grocery receipts. If you simply resolve to "eat less" or "spend less" without paying attention to what you actually eat or spend, you may never even know if you reached your goal.

How do you boost your willpower? Lets us know in comments!

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