Research shows that willpower, like your muscles, can be strengthened with the proper training. Read on to learn how you can turn your resolutions into permanent life changes by getting a grip on self-control.
When researchers in Washington conducted an international survey on people’s character strengths, they found that out of the two dozen possible virtues that participants identified themselves as having – honesty, kindness, humor, creativity – self-control came in dead last.
It doesn’t take a genius to draw the conclusion that we might be more successful at sticking to our resolutions if only we could harness our inner drill sergeant. “Making big changes in life usually requires willpower,” says one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Social Psychology at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Books, 2012). “Willpower is the energy that we use for self-control. It’s the capacity to change ourselves—our responses, our feelings, and our behaviors—to control our thoughts and resist our impulses,” he says. And, according to Baumeister, and many other scientists who have spent decades poking at the beast, it’s possible to increase your willpower supply simply by saying no to immediate temptations, in order to go after the things that you really want in life.
The Willpower Muscle
Perhaps the most encouraging research about willpower to date is that you’re not simply “out of luck” if you happen to be one of those people who, like in the Washington-based survey, claim to have absolutely none. In fact, research shows that self-control, like your muscles, can be trained over time with proper exercise. A study published last year in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, found that participants (mostly women) who took on small willpower tasks such as exercising and eating better for a period of six months, performed better on a common willpower test that measured how long they could squeeze a handgrip, despite the inevitable cramping and discomfort. “We don’t know for certain, but we believe that resisting tempting foods and the desire to sit on the couch may have enhanced willpower in other areas,” says study author Tricia M. Leahey. In a similar test, Baumeister and his team found that students who were sent home with instructions to improve their posture by sitting up straight also improved their self-control, as measured by the same test.
Supply and Demand
To see the largest increases in your overall willpower, the kind that will allow you to go after bigger goals, researchers recommend changing little habits that are easy to adjust and won’t sap too much of your self-control in one go. That’s because there’s also a down side to working with a single reserve of willpower: like a muscle, your self-control can become fatigued and drained with use. Coined as the “ego depletion theory” in Baumeister’s research, this means that, when you exert self-control, such as biting your tongue when your boss rubs you the wrong way, you’re more likely to bomb subsequent willpower tests, like resisting the chocolate cake in your fridge when you get home. “You don’t have a separate supply labelled, ‘willpower for keeping my mouth shut’ or ‘willpower for resisting chocolate,” says Frank Ryan, a Clinical Psychologist in London, England and the author of Willpower for Dummies (Wiley, 2014). Baumeister and other experts say that we have one major supply of willpower for everything that we do. Practicing simpler acts of willpower in one area helps to strengthen brain circuits overall, leading to improved performance on all self-control tasks. “Any arbitrary change that you make in your daily behavior will increase your capacity for self-control,” says Baumeister. “You can try speaking with better grammar, stop cursing, start making your bed, or try to use your left hand more if you’re right-handed. These small changes will exercise your capacity for changing yourself in any other area of your life as well, and they really do work.”
How Diets Affect Willpower
Now for the bad news. You may think you’re strengthening your willpower muscle by never going a calorie over your budget, or having even a morsel of dessert. But studies show that individuals who consistently adhere to diets are so depleted of willpower that they’re like ticking time-bombs when it comes to self-control in general.
Research has shown that when you’re on a restrictive diet, just being in the presence of M&Ms can sap your willpower, making you a lot more likely to crash at tasks completely unrelated to food later in the day. If your goal is to eat healthier, Baumeister warns that diets can be counter-productive, resulting in a “what the hell effect” after you give in to the first temptation. “You think your self-control is blown for the whole day, and all your hard work goes out the window.”
As if you needed another reason to get your zzz’s, a tired or stressed-out brain limits your cognitive function, saps your self-control reserve and makes it more difficult to harness your willpower, so when you’re on the path to finally making permanent changes in your life, a healthy sleep routine and regular dose of Zen is also important.
And, finally: don’t kick yourself down if you happen to give into temptation once in a while. “Self-criticism depletes willpower, so aim to learn from your setbacks with a sense of compassion and acceptance, and even a sense of humor,” says Ryan.
Why Willpower Fails
According to Baumeister, the top reason why New Year’s resolutions fail is because they often come in the form of a list, rather than a single focused objective. Not only can multiple large goals compete with each other, like a goal to spend more time with friends and a goal to go back to school for evening classes, but they can spread your willpower thin. “Your willpower is an amazing resource, but it is best used sequentially – that is, taking on one challenge at a time – rather than taking on tasks in parallel,” says Ryan. “If you’re juggling too many balls, you’re more likely to drop them all.”
While this doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to pick just one goal at a time (multitasking is essential to modern living, after all), it does mean budgeting your self-control. Ryan recommends investing your limited supply of willpower on prioritizing the things that matter most to you and which align most closely with your personal values. In his book, he encourages readers to consider their personality traits when choosing major goals, and to create a wish list of possible priorities, then rank them by importance and urgency. He also suggests keeping a list of your values nearby, for comparing against your list of goals.
Once you decide on a priority goal, research shows there are a number of steps that you can take to increase your likelihood of knocking it out of the park. First, Ryan says your goal is kept in your brain’s working memory, which helps you store information for short periods of time and can only accommodate one task at a time. Find ways to remind yourself of what you’re after, giving your goals “pride and place” in your life. Secondly, avoid what Baumeister refers to as “decision fatigue” (a process in which decision-making depletes your willpower) by limiting your options and making it easy to stick to your goal, like keeping only healthy snacks in the house if you’re trying to ditch processed foods. Lastly, get activities that require willpower out of the way early in the day, when your willpower stores are fresh. “There is a tendency for most self-control breakdowns to occur later in the day,” says Baumeister, because we wear away at it during our daily activities. This is especially true if you’re trying to start a new habit, which tends to require more self-control than doing things you’re already familiar with.
5 Willpower Hacks
Instantly boost your self-control with these research-backed willpower “hacks”.
Make a fist. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants who tightened a hand, finger, calf or bicep while enduring unpleasant tasks, such as submerging their hands in an ice bucket or gulping down a nasty vinegar drink, showed higher levels of self-control. These results were especially significant when their values aligned with the ultimate payoff for putting up with the pain (the vinegar drink, for example, was presented to participants as having health benefits).
Distract yourself. The famous “marshmallow experiment” in the 1970s placed hundreds of preschoolers into a room, one at a time, with a marshmallow on the table, then offered them the option of eating the marshmallow on the spot, or waiting until a researcher returned to the room to have two marshmallows. “The kids who were most successful at waiting were the ones who covered their eyes or found a way to distract themselves from thinking about the marshmallow,” says Baumeister. “In the same way, adults faced with temptation should focus their attention on something else. If you just sit there staring at the marshmallow, you will want it more.”
Hit the gym. Researchers in Amsterdam reviewed 24 studies that examined the relationship between exercise and brain function and found that immediately after a short workout, your brain gets a boost in blood-flow that delivers oxygen to areas in charge of executive functions, like decision-making and self-control. If you know you will be in a situation that requires willpower, train immediately beforehand.
Watch a re-run of Friends. It sounds crazy, but a 2012 study found that watching a re-rerun of a favorite TV show can help restore the drive to get things done in people who have used up their self-control. Knowing what comes next in the episode allows you to effortlessly and mindlessly watch (unlike tuning in to a program for the first time and anticipating what’s coming next), which has a restorative and comforting effect on your brain and a replenishing effect on your willpower.
Surround yourself with strong-willed women. People with low self-control can relieve a lot of their willpower struggles by being around others with high levels of willpower, according to a 2013 study published in Psychological Science.
Written by Kasia Wind, Photography by Paul Buceta, Model Shannon Prasarn