willpower winter

All About Willpower: Tips and Ideas

Boost your stick-to-itiveness for a happier, healthier life.

By Kellee Katagi

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Where There’s a Will: Boost your stick-to-itiveness for a happier, healthier life.


Examine successful people, researchers say, and you’ll find one—just one—common denominator: self-control. More than personality, intelligence, passion or any other trait, strong willpower corresponds in studies to nearly every measure of success—from good health to a lucrative career, a happy marriage to a healthy weight, stellar grades to fulfilling friendships. Self-controlled people are less likely to struggle with money problems, suffer from addictions, be physically aggressive or be in prison. Fortunately for all of us, willpower is not just something you’re born with—it’s a trait you can develop. That’s good news, especially this time of year when the holiday sirens of temptation are all around you. Use these scientific findings about self-control to say “no” to that second slice of pumpkin pie, go to bed earlier, finish your degree, resist those Black Friday sales … or reach any other goal that will make your life better.

The Science of Willpower

Self-control works like a muscle: “If you regularly exercise it, your willpower will get stronger,” says Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin, 2011) and a research psychologist and professor at Florida State University. “Over time, even arbitrary [successes] can reverberate through everything else you do,” Baumeister explains. For example, training yourself to make your bed every day can give your general discipline a boost, which might help you, say, stop swearing in front of your children, Baumeister says.

But Baumeister cautions that willpower, like a muscle, fatigues as you use it, leaving you vulnerable after you’ve employed a lot of it in any area. That means if you’ve bit your tongue all day with your boss, you’re much more likely to dive into that tub of ice cream after work. Decision-making—even with little things like which deodorant to buy—also drains your willpower, as Baumeister has confirmed in numerous experiments. According to Baumeister, this principle is one reason politicians, high-level executives and other people who have to make a lot of decisions are so prone to moral lapses. Avoid your own lapses and willpower failures by implementing these seven strategies for stellar self-control.

Stay fueled

Like so many areas of life, improving willpower starts with maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Through numerous studies, Baumeister and other researchers have proven that to exert self-control, your brain needs energy in the form of glucose, or blood sugar. In fact, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is unusually common among criminals, people prone to violence and others with low self-control, Baumeister reports. Keep your blood sugar levels steady by eating regular meals and snacks that include a balance of healthy carbs, fats and proteins. In contrast, sweet, sugary treats may give you a momentary fix but can then cause blood sugar levels to plummet, leaving you worse off than you were before. Sleep (at least seven hours each night), meditation, exercise and relaxing activities can also reenergize your willpower muscle.

Make a plan

First, choose one area you want to work on. (Remember, willpower is a finite resource, so if you tackle several things at once, you’re setting yourself up for failure.) Then, set a clear, specific and reasonable long-term goal, such as reaching a healthy weight or starting your own business. Next, establish short-term goals that lead to the long-term goal, Baumeister recommends. Start by replacing your afternoon potato chips with carrots and hummus, for example, or carve out 20 minutes after dinner every night to work on your business plan. Review your goals monthly, and revise as necessary.

Before you implement the plan, examine your motivation and desire. Ask: Why is this goal important to me? Am I willing to do what it takes to reach it? “You have to be ready to implement the plan, which means you need to be willing to change,” says Michelle Berry, M.A., L.P.C., a psychotherapist at Denver’s Clinical Nutrition Center, which helps people achieve weight loss. For tips on pinpointing your motivation, turn to the Q&A with Holly Wyatt, M.D.

Identify your plan busters

“Notice what tempts you,” Berry recommends. “When are you at your weakest?” Figure out what is likely to sabotage your good intentions and then go on the offensive. Set your holiday table with salad plates instead of dinner plates to encourage better portion control, and, when preparing the feast, halve big recipes so there won’t be enough for second helpings. Take only the cash you need for your shopping trip, and leave your credit cards at home. Seek out a new social group that meets regularly for outdoor activities. Discuss your plan with your loved ones. Use moments when your willpower is high to set up safeguards for when it’s depleted.

Build routines

Brushing your teeth before bed doesn’t likely drain your willpower. Why? Because it’s a habit, a routine. When a behavior becomes automatic, it ceases to draw on your willpower reserves. “The human mind is set up so that things become routine,” Baumeister says. To build a routine, establish cues that will prompt you toward the action. Take a sip of water every time you save your work on the computer, or establish a rule that every time you open the fridge, you first pull out fresh fruits or veggies.

Getting rid of bad habits is trickier. First, you must identify the craving that triggers the negative behavior, asserts Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012). Then when you feel that craving, substitute a positive behavior that also fills the need. For example, if you habitually snack to relieve boredom, practice taking a short walk or playing a short computer game whenever you feel the urge to snack, he suggests. Soon your brain will connect the new activity with boredom relief or whatever craving you’re seeking to satisfy.

Keep tabs on yourself

It’s easy to think you’re doing better—or worse—than you really are. But accurately monitoring your behavior can increase willpower, Baumeister says. Food journals, sites such as mint.com that track your
spending, devices and apps that record physical activity levels, and other such monitoring tools can help you stick to your plan. Even something as simple as being able to see yourself in a mirror inspires better behavior, studies show. For even greater payoff, commit to sharing your data with someone who will keep you accountable.

Plan to fail

“Being perfect is not a realistic expectation,” Berry says. “For example, if you can do 80 percent of your eating plan when you’re trying to lose weight, the other 20 percent of the time you can eat what you want—within reason, of course.” You’re much more likely to stick with a flexible plan than a rigid one because you don’t feel deprived, Berry explains. For weight loss in particular, it helps to build in “cheat days” and to not declare any foods permanently off limits. Another proven tactic is to tell yourself you can have something later. The promise of future fulfillment is often enough to diminish a craving, studies show.

Don’t give up

Anyone can build willpower, experts say. Start with small, achievable goals. Learn from each experience—successful or not—and keep trying, Berry says. “You’ll build the determination you need to follow through on your plan.”

“Higher Power” Power

Here’s a research-backed paradox: One proven path to self-control is to lean on someone—or something—
else for extra resolve. A 2009 meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin reported that, in almost every measure, religious people have greater self-control than nonreligious people. The results? Overall better health, social support, family happiness and coping mechanisms. This phenomenon is acknowledged in successful 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which require participants to recognize and submit to a higher power. The reasons why are debatable, but if you can summon the willpower to say a few prayers or haul yourself (open-mindedly) to a religious service or two, you may soon find your willpower muscle growing stronger.

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