“I am super clear on what I want to accomplish” said Karen, a recent student of ours who was just entering her senior year, “but the more I try to get things done, the less often I seem to succeed.”
Karen went on to share – in front of the whole class of 475 undergrads no less — that she was trying to exercise more often, meditate daily, and eat more healthily.
“I know that these things are all good for me. I know that I would be happier if I could make them a part of my life. I have the best intentions, but then I find myself up late, surfing the net, and eating Ben & Jerry’s right out of the container. I have to say that it is super frustrating”.
Karen was at the end of her rope. She also wasn’t alone.
Every semester we begin our class on willpower asking our 475 students a simple question: “Who wishes that they had more willpower?”
Nearly all of them raise their hands – some of them raise both – hardly a surprise seeing that studies have found that a vast majority of us would raise ours also.
Whether it is something that we want to stop (i.e. eating junk food, impulse shopping, or texting our ex) or a habit that we want to develop (i.e. regular exercise, better study habits, or staying in closer contact with friends), we are all striving for something, and like Karen…failing miserably.
So, is there an answer to this age old cycle of wanting an end result but falling off the wagon that will take you there? It turns out, there is something, though not magical, that will unlock the door to your goals. That key?
Learn 3 sure-fire ways to power up your willpower.
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal defines willpower as “the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because — believe it or not – you have it.
Yes, you do.
Have you ever hit the books or gone to work when Netflix was singing her siren song of a newly downloaded season of television awesomeness? Willpower.
Have you hit the sack when you knew that a new tweet or Facebook post was just a click away? Willpower.
Woken up early (gasp)…to exercise (double gasp)? Chosen eggs over waffles? Willpower and willpower.
Done any number of things because you knew they were “right” rather than “fun”? You know what’s coming…willpower.
Willpower is so essential to thriving that kids who display it early in life go on to realize higher GPAs, better salaries, happier relationships, lower rates of divorce, and significantly lower body mass index (a key indicator of physical fitness).
They grow up to be more resilient, more confident, and even deal more effectively with stress.
Now this is all well and good if you were that kid who said no to dessert and chose to do your homework before going outside to play. But what about the 70% of us who couldn’t help but sneak the cookie or stay out past curfew?
Are we destined to spend the rest of our days eating the dust of our more self-regulated contemporaries? Are we doomed to lower salaries, less confidence and happiness, and a virtual carousel of failed relationships?
Fortunately, there is hope for all of us. The secrets and strategies for success are not hard to crack and even easier to make on your own.
The first step in achieving willpower is to understand what you have to work with. It’s pretty tough to cook a meal without knowing your ingredients after all.
Speaking of ingredients, let’s talk about cookies. Yes…cookies. Chocolate chip, to be exact.
Actually, cookies and radishes, because this is what greeted participants in a study at Florida State University, where social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues would lift the hood and begin to understand how willpower works.
Upon entering the room, the study participants were hit by the tantalizing aroma of fresh chocolate chip cookies heaped on plates that were placed on every table in sight.
The students were divided into two groups. One group was told the cookies were all theirs: Eat ’em, smell ’em, throw ’em like Frisbees, hang ’em on the wall like art, rub ’em all over your body (okay, we made up those last three, but you get the idea). It was a cookie fest!
Except…how come there were bowls of radishes in equal abundance? The other group was told they were out of luck if they wanted any cookies. It was radishes or nothing for them.
After just five minutes to savor (or suffer), the researchers switched gears, thanked everyone, and informed both groups that it was time to move on to a different study.
Removing the food from the room, they handed out a book of math puzzles to all participants and asked them to begin solving them.
Just hang with me…this will all tie together.
What they did not tell them—and here is where things really get interesting—was that the puzzles were unsolvable.
How many minutes would you work at a puzzle before giving up?
The radish group gave up in just eight minutes.
The cookie eaters? They persisted for nineteen. That’s right, nineteen. The cookie eaters worked more than twice as long before they gave up on the puzzle.
Allow us to put that more precisely:
Radish eaters: 8.35 minutes until giving up
Cookie eaters: 18.90 minutes until giving up
It turns out that willpower is a muscle that tires with use.
Whether you are resisting cookies, Facebook, a glass of wine or texting your ex, the more you use it, the weaker it gets, until it’s all but gone.
You see, the radish eaters had depleted their willpower resisting cookies, and thus didn’t have the oomph left to stick with the puzzle as long as the cookie eaters did.
And just as saying no drains, so does saying yes. The well-intentioned efforts to push through unsolvable problems, study harder, clean your dorm room, or balance your finances all take a toll on your willpower, too.
The more you use it throughout the day, the weaker it becomes, and the less you have remaining when you’re having that midnight stare down with Ben and Jerry’s — so you give it up and grab the spoon…this sucker was over before it began.
And let’s be clear here—almost everything you do requires willpower:
- Getting up in the morning (without hitting your snooze bar eight times)
- Hitting the gym (instead of the couch)
- Paying attention during a meeting (and we don’t mean to your phone)
Every choice you make—good or bad—continually fatigues that willpower muscle.
That muscle wakes up like the fresh-faced Lindsay Lohan circa Mean Girls, but by bedtime is today’s hot-mess Lindsay Lohan courtesy of TMZ.
As the day goes on, your strength is progressively sapped, and after a long, tough one, most of us are far more likely to make poor decisions.
Ever have a regrettable fight, regrettable double bacon pepperoni pizza, regrettable sex, or a million other regrettable things?
Probably happened later in the day, didn’t it?
By the time night falls, you may find yourself simply doing nothing at all. You may find yourself on a sort of robotic autopilot, zombie-walking back into your house, sincerely intending to tackle the array of stuff on that is piling up on your desk or laptop (and likely on your conscience) but discovering that the lure of the couch is simply too much to resist.
Willpower? Gone. Proactivity? Not happening. And thirty minutes later, you are still watching the same dumb TV show, and the spiral has only gone further downward.
Some of the most common willpower vampires include:
- Making decisions
- Taking initiatives
- Restraining impulses
- Sleep deprivation
Even when we try to do the right thing, we seem to only have so much willpower.
As Kelly McGonigal points out:
- Smokers who abstain from cigarettes for twenty-four hours are more likely to binge on ice cream.
- Drinkers who say no to their favorite cocktail become weaker on a test of physical endurance.
- People who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse (yes, you read that correctly).
So what the hell are we supposed to do? Are we doomed to either smoke or eat sundaes? Drink or collapse on a run? Wear fat jeans forever or cheat on our partners?
Here's the thing — just like a muscle, not only can you make it stronger, you can also keep some on ice for later.
Welcome to the willpower gym.
1. Exercise: Breathe, Move, Sleep
If you’ve ever had your heart set aflutter, you have experienced a telltale physical sign of temptation.
When you are on the verge of caving into a craving (or succumbing to a distraction such as the Internet), your heart rate rises, but its consistency decreases—a cardiovascular portrait of speeding up while losing control.
When you are ready to face the challenge, however, the opposite occurs, a slower and more regulated rhythm. Heart rate variability (HRV) is such a strong indicator of willpower that it can allow researchers to predict how people do in the face of temptation.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to increase your HRV so that it helps you keep your cool at times when you feel like you might get all hot and bothered.
Try twenty breaths.
Breathing to regulate your HRV can work wonders. The University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Baime recommends closing your eyes, sitting upright, and taking twenty breaths, counting each one (an inhale/exhale counts as one) and focusing on each cycle intently for about ten seconds each.
Read Related: 5 Mindfulness Exercises To Reduce Stress and Reclaim Joy
Doing this in moments of weakness can help you triumph over temptation. Practicing twice each day builds strength so you can stay on the path, not stray from it.
Step (or run) away from temptation.
Regular exercise increases HRV, optimizes your willpower, and has been found to reduce consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and junk food; minimize impulse buying, procrastination, and lateness; and increase study habits and money-saving practices.
No need to run a marathon: If you want to hit the gym, great. If it’s a stroll around the block, equally great. Just move it.
Rested eyes stay on the prize.
The effects of sleep deprivation resemble mild intoxication, and your HRV suffers the same way (bad decisions, anyone?).
If you’re still working on getting a solid seven to eight, try a twenty-minute nap (tip: I swear by my earplugs and take them everywhere I go).
It has loads of cognitive benefits, and you may notice an instant boost in your ability to stay on task and ignore the distractions.
2) Exercise: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
We once had a student in class who loved ice cream so much that when we asked the students about their most challenging temptations, she raised both hands and said, “This is Ben and this is Jerry. They live in my fridge. Always.”
Her solution to the addiction? She simply stopped keeping ice cream in her freezer, forcing herself to walk to the store to buy a pint when she had to have it. Ben and Jerry were a lot less desirable when it became a commuter relationship.
Read Related: Rebounding Trampoline Exercises
If you’re glued to your phone, bury it at the bottom of your closet at bedtime instead of keeping it beside—or in—your bed.
If you’re a shopaholic, freeze your credit card in a block of ice. Not only can you save a few bucks (or calories), but you save up your willpower for when you need it later.
Whether it’s ice cream or your ex, choose a temptation you would be better off without. Now, strategize.
If you have the urge to text your ex all the time (or simply at the wrong time), or you find yourself rereading his or her texts, erase all of their contact info from your phone. (I did this once for my best friend. Without telling him. Long term, good. Short term, mayhem.)
Move the TV out of your bedroom – it’s hard to binge your favorite show when there is nothing to watch it on. Turn your phone off during a date or a meal with friends or family (not silent, not airplane mode, OFF). Stick to your strategy for one month, then move on to the next temptation. Studies show that we should be ready for our next challenge after thirty days.
3) Exercise: Two Wills Are Better than One
Social support can be key to boosting willpower. Whether you want to resist temptations or take more initiative, teaming up with friends makes the going easier.
Be in good company.
Studies show that simply observing people who are exerting their willpower can help raise our own levels. Do you appreciate a friend’s habits when it comes to exercise or good nutrition? Spend more time with that person.
Get a workout partner.
Accountability to others is a key to developing habits and goal-setting.
Find a friend who is looking to build willpower, share your specific goals with each other, and then set a time to check in every day on progress and goals for the day ahead. A quick text or conversation will do the trick.
Try a trainer or coach.
Personal trainers aren’t just for toning up your abs, they can buff up your willpower as well.
Whether it’s organization, managing personal finances, nutrition, or any other area you want to improve, work with a specialist, like a life coach, once a week, logging your progress each day.
Read Related: How to Stay Healthy: 10 Micro Habits To Practice Daily
Stick with one area of focus at a time (remember, you only have one willpower muscle!).
We tend to think of willpower as something that is key to specific desires – eating, exercising, saying “no” when no is the right thing to say – even if “yes” would be a lot more fun.
But research shows that willpower is much more than a prudent yes or no.
The amount that you enjoy affects the quality of your friendships, health, resilience, and happiness (to name a few), and predicts higher salaries and more secure relationships in the years ahead.
Fortunately for those of us late to the willpower game, research shows that it’s never too late to start exercising and building up your willpower.
Daniel Lerner is a speaker, teacher, strengths-based performance coach, and an expert in positive and performance psychologies. In the classroom and in his talks, Lerner integrates storytelling, humor, and science, helping students and professionals apply his teachings into their lives with immediate benefit.
From the Dan Lerner and Alan Schlechter, co-teachers of NYU’s most popular elective class, “Science of Happiness,” comes the new book, U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life), a fun, comprehensive guide to surviving and thriving in college and beyond.