If you’ve suspected that you run out of willpower as the day wears on, you’re right.
Scientists have discovered that willpower is a kind of energy that gets spent over the course of your day. Like a muscle that gets tired from exercise, our self-control strength gets sapped by the many decisions, distractions, and stresses we face.
But science also shows that it’s easier than you might think to restore your spent willpower. Anything that reduces stress, boosts your mood, or recharges your energy can also give you back your self-control strength.
Below are five strategies to restore your willpower. Sure, they may look like temptations and distractions—but think of them as strategic indulgences. Treat yourself to the healthiest versions of these willpower boosts whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, and you can be the best version of yourself—calm, focused, motivated, making smart decisions—all day long.
1. Reality Television.
Research shows that willpower can be contagious. You can “catch” extra self-control just by seeing someone else pursue a goal. Many reality shows feature people working hard to overcome obstacles—whether it’s losing weight, facing their fears, or even just organizing their clutter. A little entertainment inspiration can help you find your own strength. (Caveat: You can also catch temptation. So if you want to keep self-control high, steer clear of the shows that feature spectacular lapses of judgment and self-control.)
2. A Snack.
One reason willpower runs out is because it’s energy-expensive. The brain uses more energy for self-control than for just about anything else. So if you’re running low on physical energy, you’ll be low in willpower energy. Studies show that when your blood sugar drops, your brain is less able to focus and control your impulses. But a small snack that increases blood sugar helps the brain snap back into self-control mode. Most of the studies on refueling willpower used sweets like candy and soda. However, a snack that provides more lasting energy (with some protein or high-quality carbs) will sustain your willpower boost longer and not induce any post-snack regret.
3. The Cute YouTube Video.
Oh, yes, it’s easy to fall down the hole of cute YouTube kitties and baby hedgehogs. But if you can satisfy yourself with a few minutes of cuteness, an adorable video can be just the willpower boost you need. Research show that watching a humorous video restores depleted willpower and helps people get back on track with difficult tasks. If puppies aren’t your thing, find a few stand-up clips or whatever makes you laugh.
4. An Afternoon Nap.
Willpower is often highest in the morning because the brain is refreshed by sleep. Sleep recharges your brain so you wake up ready to face the challenges of the day. When you’re sleep deprived, your brain has an especially hard time ignoring distractions and controlling impulses. Sneaking a mid-day “power nap” into your schedule can reverse the usual willpower drain from morning to night. Researchshows that a nap can reduce stress, improve mood, and restore focus—even if you haven’t had a perfect eight hours the night before.
5. A Single Espresso.
Caffeine gets a bad rap, blamed for energy crashes and overcaffeinated jitters. But in its simplest form—straight up coffee or tea—and reasonable doses (depending on your own caffeine tolerance), caffeine can actually reduce stress. In fact, studies show that small doses of caffeine balance the autonomic nervous system, making you both alert and calmer at the same time. It also helps the brain and body use energy more efficiently. The result: you are better able to handle temptations and tackle challenges. We get into trouble when we add heaps of sugar, whipped cream, and other extras, or aim for a massive caffeine high that will leave us with a hangover. Skip the high-calorie coffee concoctions and refuel your willpower with a small dose of caffeine.
Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for behavior change, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
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