The good news is there is a psychological science behind self-control. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure, however there are a number of scientifically supported strategies that can help you finally achieve that allusive healthy lifestyle.
To understand the secrets to having more willpower, it helps to first understand what reduces our willpower. Roy Baumeister, PhD is a psychologist and leader in researcher on willpower has found our self-control diminishes during the day as we use it. It’s like a muscle that can get fatigued from over-use. Think about how many times each you need to exert your willpower. You resist the cake for morning tea. You ignore the email that just popped into your inbox. You fight the urge to look at Facebook until your lunch break. You bite your tongue in a meeting when you’d like to have made a smart retort. Each time you exercise self-control you deplete your strength.
Here’s 6 strategies science says can preserve and strengthen our willpower:
- Eat regularly – willpower depletion is tied to lower fuel for the brain. The brain is a high-energy organ and requires a steady supply of glucose (blood sugar). Each time self-control is exerted, it uses up glucose in the brain faster than it can be replenished, depleting our willpower. Therefore, eating regularly to maintain the glucose levels might help to maintain higher levels of willpower throughout the day. If you are attempting to lose weight, you might find you have more willpower by eating regular small meals, rather than skipping meals which risks exhausting your willpower.
- Avoid temptation – there are numerous willpower studies that support the idea that it’s easier to resist temptation if you can’t see it! If you’re trying to lose weight, make sure you don’t have chocolate or unhealthy treats in your house. There’s a famous piece of research on willpower in young children, called the ‘marshmallow test’, which was conducted over 40 years ago by psychologist Walter Mischel. He left each child alone in a room with one marshmallow in front of them. He told them he would be back in a few minutes, if they didn’t eat the marshmallow while he was gone, he would give them another one. If they ate it, that was fine, but they wouldn’t get any more. The children with good self-control resisted the immediate pleasure of eating one marshmallow to instead get rewarded with another. What was interesting was the strategies used by the young kids who resisted the massive temptation to eat the marshmallow. A lot of them turned away so they couldn’t see it, or otherwise distracted themselves by singing, thereby helping them to avoid the immediate temptation. As it turns out this strategy proves very effective for adults as well. If the temptation is in front of you, it requires a lot more willpower to say no. If it’s not there, it increases your chance of success. So avoidance of the temptation or distraction from it by good planning ahead can be very useful to assisting your willpower. [If you want to see the marshmallow test in action, have a look at the You Tube clip below, it's totally worth it!]
- Build your willpower ‘muscle’ - just as muscles are strengthened by exercise, so too is your willpower ‘muscle’. Research shows that when we regularly exert self-control it may strengthen your willpower over time. An Australian study found that people who were assigned to a two month program of physical exercise found that by using their self-control to maintain the exercise routine, they also had more willpower to smoke less, drink less alcohol, eat more healthy food, avoid frivolous spending and studied better! By building their willpower muscle, they found they had better willpower across the board.
- Have a strong goal - when people are much clearer about what they want to achieve and why, it assists willpower. Think carefully about the goal you want to achieve and importantly consider why you want to achieve (ie, what’s the emotional reason/benefit you will gain by achieving this goal). Then write that down and it will boost your self-control by having that clarity.
- Keep your mood positive - the effects of willpower depletion can be offset by maintaining a positive mood, positive thoughts and a true belief that you can do it. Each day do things that bring you joy and happiness to boost your mood. Hang with friends who are positive. Watch movies that are happy. Listen to upbeat music. Take a walk on the beach or in nature. And monitor your thoughts to make sure you minimise the unhelpful, negative chatter. Keep re-reading your goal to keep alive the sense of belief that this is achievable.
- Use if/then statements - plan ahead and anticipate the situations that may rock your resolve, then create in your mind an ‘if/then’ statement that will help you through this situation. For example, you may be wanting to lose weight but you know there’s a party coming up where finger food will be served and in the past this has been a massive temptation. Your ‘if/then’ statement might be, “If I am offered some nibbles, then I will take the carrot stick only”. So when this situation becomes a reality, you already know what you’re going to do, meaning you don’t have to rely wholly on willpower alone.
Have a try…..
Practice using these different strategies above, and hopefully there are some in there that will help you achieve your goal. Good luck, you’re not alone with wanting more willpower, the great news is these things can help.
Please enjoy watching a replication of the 1960s marshmallow test here, the kids are so adorable trying to resist!