Wish You Had More Willpower? Here's How . . .

By Lola Komisin Mason posted 11-13-2012 13:00

If you're like most people, you've probably lamented at one time or another, "I  wish I had more willpower!".   When a million people were asked to name their greatest strengths, self control came in dead last!  And, when asked to list their weaknesses, self control was at the top of the list.  I often hear people say that they don't have enough willpower to exercise, or stop smoking, or eat less sweets.   I've said it myself many times until I started reading the work of Roy Baumeister, a psychologist, who studies self regulation (the term scientists use for willpower).  Baumeister explains that self control (willpower) is like a muscle and you can strengthen it.   His latest book, Willpower is filled with interesting research studies and stories of people who learned how to build their willpower muscle and you can do the same. The most important concept is to understand that like a muscle, your willpower is depleted as you use it throughout the day to make decisions, manage stress and resist a plethora of temptations such as resisting sweets, daydreaming, telling your boss what you really think, or surfing the web instead of working on that pressing project.   

Baumeister maintains that success in ALL areas of life depends on only two factors: intelligence and self control.   Of the two, self control is the most malleable.  Research shows that self control is a better predictor of college grades than the SAT or IQ and that managers high in self control are rated more favorably by direct reports and peers.  One study found that executives who were promoted to CEO had 7 times more self control and 3 times more empathy than those who were passed over.   

So how can you build your willpower muscle?
1.  First, feed your willpower muscle the right stuff.  When you wake up in the morning you are fresh and have a full tank of willpower (assuming you've had a good night's rest).  As you go through your day, resisting temptations, making decisions and dealing with stress, your willpower reservoir is being depleted so that you're more likely to give in to the next temptation whether it's a donut, or losing your cool.  Thinking, resisting temptations and decision making require lots of energy.  This energy is supplied by glucose in the bloodstream which converts to neurotransmitters in the brain.  As your willpower declines your glucose level gets depleted.  And, the more self control you need, the more you crave sweets!  Unfortunately, if you succumb to the sweets, you set yourself up for a sugar spike and then a crash.   Since all food is converted to glucose just at different rates, Baumeister recommends a slow and steady burn of veggies, nuts, raw fruits, etc.   The 'if...then' technique can be really helpful when you crave a sweet.  For example, plan for your sweet craving ahead of time by saying to yourself, "If I want a sweet, I'll first eat an apple or yogurt.  Then, if I still want a sweet later I can."   It'll take about 20 minutes for the healthy snack to provide the glucose that you need and the willpower to pass up the snack.   
2.  Now, you're ready to set a goal.   It needs to be very specific not a pipe dream.  For motivation, it's important to focus on the road ahead and what you need to actually do.  This gap between what you've already done and still need to do will motivate you to press ahead.  It needs to be a goal that you really want and believe that you can achieve if you are willing to work hard.  Be realistic about the hurdles that you'll face and plan how you will address them.   Specify when and where you will do what.   Studies show that when people plan when and where they will do something, they are significantly more likely to follow through.  For example, when students agreed to write an essay on a holiday, 78% of those who had specified when and where they would write the essay actually followed through vs only 30% who were not asked to plan when and where they would write it.  Even more noteworthy, when drug addicts in withdrawal (and stressed out) agreed to write an essay before 5pm on a certain day, 80% of those who hadplanned when and where actually completed the task vs 0% who had agreed to write, but did not specify when and were.   Finally, women who agreed to do a breast self-exam over 30 days and planned when and  where had a 100% completion rate vs 53% of those who did not specify.  Tip:  The next time you ask your child or spouse about an activity, ask them to specify when and where.
3.  The third step is to track your behavior.  For example, I started keeping a daily exercise and eating log several years ago. In addition, i wear a pedometer every day.  If I haven't hit my 10,000 steps by dinner time, I'm almost compelled to walk outside or hit the treadmill.   It's become as much of a habit as brushing my teeth before going to bed.  Once a goal becomes a habit it becomes automatic and routine.  You no longer need to exert your self control muscle to maintain the behavior.  This means you'll have more energy to focus on forming new desireable habits.   Experts suggest that at least 40% your daily activities (good and bad) are automatic and require no thinking or decision making on your part.  The more routines that you can commit to habit frees you up to focus on other important goals that require you to use willpower.

Here's the icing on the cake. Research shows that if you exercise self control in ONE area of your life it improves willpower in ALL areas of your life.   Students who developed one habit goal that was important to them increased their stamina on other temptations. By strengthening thier willpower in one area, they were more likely to exercise more, study more, budget their money, smoke less, drink less, procrastinate less, etc.   

Start strengthening your willpower muscle today!