Everyone has something they would like to change, or have tried unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, change is hard and old habits can be hard to break. It seems we fail more often than succeed. “Willpower” is typically at blame for our failures. A growing body of evidence indicates that willpower is essential for a happy and successful life. What can we do about this? Can we actually increase our willpower? The answer is YES! Willpower is like a muscle it can become stronger. The strongest evidence can be found in two studies that measure young children’s self-control, and then track them through into their adult years.
In the 1960s psychologist Walter Mischel ran the “marshmallow experiment”. He offered four year olds the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. He and his research team tracked the performance of these children as they became adults. They found that children who resisted temptation achieved greater academic success, lower rates of marital separation, divorce and better health. Mischel concluded that the ability to delay gratification constituted a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life.
In a second study, 1,000 children were tracked from birth to the age of 32. Research found that child’s self-control predicted their substance dependence, criminal offenses, physical health and personal finances. This was true even when other factors such as intelligence and social class were equated. They even compared sibling pairs and found that the sibling in each pair with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background.
So, how do we improve willpower? Start by thinking of willpower like a muscle. Willpower is not a personality trait, a skill or a virtue. Instead, it operates like a muscle. It can be strengthened like a muscle. Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset. Using willpower depletes resources in the body. It is limited and is trainable. You already know muscles get stronger when exercise properly. Muscles can be overworked, leaving them weak until they have a chance to recover. What you may not know is that willpower reacts the same way.
Various studies have revealed the effects of suppression on willpower. For example, in a study women watched a nature documentary while being seated to or across the room from a bowl of candy. Later, they were given impossible puzzles to solve. Those women who sat near the candy while watching the movie gave up sooner than the women who were seated far from the candy. In other words, the effort it took to resist that nearby temptation depleted willpower, causing these women to give up sooner on the stressful task.
Here are 9 strategies you can use to strengthen you willpower and become successful in changing your habits:
- Don’t keep yourself in a constant state of willpower depletion. For example, trying to constantly diet. While wisely exercising self-control is a great way to build willpower, never giving yourself a break is a good way to deplete your resolve. Planning a few cheats each week will help you be more successful.
- Visualize your success. The body will respond to imagined situations in the same way it responds to experienced ones.
- Build good habits. Stress will strongly deplete your willpower. When people are stressed they tend to fall back to old habits. By building good habits you will control stressful situations.
- One step at a time. People can get overwhelmed when starting a project. Have a plan in place, take it one step at a time and it will help prevent stress.
- Be yourself, trying to be someone that you are not takes energy. That used energy will reduce your willpower.
- Don’t put yourself in temptation’s way, stick to a plan – say “I Don’t” rather than “I Can’t”
- Get enough sleep to help your brain manage better energy. A recent study by Daniel Kripke showed people who sleep 6.5 to 7.5 hours each night live the longest, are the happiest and are the most productive.
- Meditation has been shown to increase the reserves of willpower.
- Proper exercise and nutrition