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March 20, 2017
When people hear the word “willpower,” there’s potential for different reactions. Some people think they generally have a lot of it, others feel as if they have none, and still others find themselves somewhere in between on any given day. While there is a common misconception that willpower is something you’re born with, it turns out that you actually have quite a bit of control over how to use willpower to your greatest advantage.
The American Psychological Association describes willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” Willpower is your ability to self-regulate, and in one form or another, you are using it every single day. Each time you resist a cookie or head to the gym instead of sleeping in, you are working your system’s ability to override your desire for instant gratification.
Scientists have likened willpower to a muscle that can be strengthened over time—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. However, just like physical muscles, the willpower muscle can also be fatigued if overused. Over the course of the day, each act of resistance over temptation actually lowers the chance you will resist the next tempting encounter. If this is the case, then, you need to understand how you can use what you know about willpower to conserve it, amplify it, and use it to your greatest benefit.
Here are five ways to strengthen your willpower
If you only have a certain allotment of willpower on any given day, it makes sense to avoid temptation in the first place, so as not to use it all up too soon. If you’re trying to eat healthier, don’t buy junk food in the first place. If you want to drink less alcohol, don’t hang around at bars. If you need to write a report, temporarily turn off your internet access so you don’t have to resist the urge to check your email or Facebook. In other words, if you can curate your day to save up your willpower, you will automatically feel like you have more of it.
It would be impossible to avoid temptation all together, so having a plan for when you’re faced with tempting situations will help to take the mental work out of the equation. Psychologists suggest a technique called “implementation intention” in the form of “if-then” statements. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, you might tell yourself, “If I feel the urge to smoke, then I will chew a piece of gum.” Rather than engaging in the internal struggle every time you’re faced with the impulse to smoke, you simply go for the gum in your purse because you’ve planned ahead.
In addition to setting up mental constructs to prepare yourself for the inevitable obstacles of the day, consider what you can do to make your desired habits easier to execute. Try laying out your workout clothes and running shoes before going to bed, so it’s effortless to get dressed for your morning jog. Sign up for your yoga classes ahead of time to hold yourself accountable, making you more likely to make it to class. Leave your credit cards at home, and only use cash when you go shopping, to keep yourself on budget and avoid the temptation to impulse-buy. Smart planning will yield better results.
Self-development educator and author Brian Tracy teaches that if you do your biggest and most important task first thing in the day, you’re more likely to succeed and less likely to procrastinate—a technique he calls “eating the frog.” If your genuine intention is to meditate daily, you’re more likely to do it if it’s first thing in the morning, as opposed to saving it for “whenever you have time.” Go to the gym before work as opposed to after work. Tackle that important work project in the morning, and respond to your emails in the afternoon.
Remember, you’re less likely to resist your impulses later in the day, so be mindful if a friend invites you to a late dinner; you might be less likely to avoid devouring the bread basket. And on a related note, your willpower depletes even faster when you drink alcohol, which is why you often feel compelled to throw caution to the wind when you’ve had a few. Again, getting familiar with your tendencies and structuring your day accordingly will do a lot to conserve your willpower.
While it may feel inspiring and exciting to embark on several goals at once, a la New Years’ Resolutions, you’re more likely to achieve your goals if you only focus on one at a time. Trying to exercise five days a week (when you’re currently exercising zero), cutting carbs out of your diet (when you’re currently a carb-a-holic), and cook all your own meals (when you normally eat out most nights) is a recipe for failure and disappointment.
When you blast your self-regulatory system with too many requests all at once, you are more likely to experience willpower depletion, give up on all of it, and even rebel in the opposite direction. Willpower fatigue in one area often leads to fatigue in other areas, so focus your efforts on one thing at a time to reap the greatest rewards. If you can successfully create long-lasting habits out of your goals, eventually they will not require any willpower at all.
When you find your willpower resources running low, refuel with some “me time,” by either going for a short walk or meditating. The more in touch you are with the reasons for your priorities and intentions, the more likely you will overcome the obstacles that try to get in your way. The good news is that no one’s willpower has ever completely run out, so learn your patterns and become more self-aware to set yourself up for success!
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