Willpower: energetic determination;
control of one’s impulses and actions;
the ability to ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a longer-term goal…
Willpower synonyms: self-control, will, firmness, drive, determination, resolve, strength, backbone, iron will, discipline, grit
No matter how you define willpower, it is considered the single most important “keystone habit” for individual success, says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Individuals with high levels of willpower seem to outperform others, and they do so without looking like they are working hard at it. According to Duhigg, individuals with high levels of willpower or “self-control” appear this way because they have made willpower automatic. Simply put, willpower occurs without them having to think about it—it’s a part of their life.
Many people have tapped into their willpower stores before (some without even knowing it), but have found it difficult to make it a permanent part of everyday life. Fortunately, boosting your willpower and keeping it that way is possible. Willpower can become automatic in everyday life if you make a commitment to:
Change the way you think
Set small goals
Get plenty of rest
A U.S. News & World Report health report discusses how these actions alone can activate your willpower and keep it charged year after year.
Change the Way You Think
Think long-term consequences rather than short-term pleasures, says Deborah Kotz, author of the U.S. News report. A Columbia University Study asked participants to imagine the long-term consequences of eating tempting foods (i.e. weight gain) as opposed to the immediate pleasure of biting into a chocolate bar. “It’s natural to think about the now rather than the later,” says study author Hedy Kober, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine. “But we showed that people can teach themselves to think differently to the extent that smokers actually found they wanted cigarettes less when they used the ‘think later’ approach.”
Mindfulness meditation for just a few minutes a day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making, says Kotz. According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, what’s going on in your body, your mind, and all around you, can make it easier to tune in to choices you make several hundred times a day when it comes to eating.” Ms. McGonigal teaches a class on the science of willpower at Stanford University.
Setting small goals
Try cutting your goal in half. If you want to lose 20 pounds, set a goal to lose 10 instead. If you made a pact with yourself to exercise every day of the week for an hour each, try 1 to 2 days a week for a half hour a so each instead, especially if you’re entering the world of exercise for the first time. According to McGonigal, “setting small goals will give you small successes that will motivate you to continue.” Another trick is to anticipate failure (like gaining a pound after you’ve lost two), so you don’t end up getting derailed.
Get plenty of rest
We all know the importance of rest. It helps you make better decisions, stay alert and energetic, and it can help keep your mood in check. But when it comes to willpower, those who sleep less than six hours a night are much more susceptible to giving in to cravings, says McGonigal. Sometimes the answer to getting more willpower, she says, is to just sleep a little more.
Eat enough (and often)
According to Florida State University (FSU) researchers, feeling famished lowers your willpower. FSU researchers conducted a study that found that those who had low blood glucose levels from not eating performed worse on self-control tasks than those who were satiated. Eating at least every 3 to 4 hours will also help keep your brain fueled with glucose, says Kotz.
Research shows that it takes at least 21 days for a new behavior to begin to feel “routine.” So if you’re cutting back on sugar, alcohol, or smoking, or you’ve just started working out, be patient and forge ahead for at least 3 weeks (in some cases 30 days). If you stick with it this long, chances are your new behavior will become habit—and stick. If you make a mistake or two during this 3-week period, don’t give up. Slip-ups are to be expected. Just dive back in the next day and don’t forget to test your willpower. Chances are it will be much stronger than it was when you began your journey.
For more information about willpower and how to increase yours, visit The American Psychological Association (APA), Psychology Today, or IDEA Fitness Journal.