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Do you wish you had more self-control?  We all have moments when our willpower seems to fail us and bad choices ensue.  Despite our best intentions we lose our patience, snap at others, buy things we’ll never use, and struggle to prioritize our wellbeing.  But can you really improve your willpower? 

“When it comes to willpower, most people think they’d be better off if they had more,” explained Professor Roy Baumeister, one of the world’s leading researchers on willpower and self-control, when I interviewed him recently. “After all, willpower gives you the power to regulate and bring out the best in yourself.” 

Roy’s early groundbreaking studies suggested that your willpower might work like a muscle that gets tired when you exercise it, but if you exercise it a lot it seems to get stronger over time. Again and again, Roy and his colleagues have found that engaging in tasks that require people to control their impulses – like resisting cookies while hungry – results in lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower. 

The good news was that Roy’s studies also suggested that exercising it could tone up your self-control.  For example, when students were asked to keep track of their eating or use their non-dominant hand consistently for tasks, after several weeks they showed greater levels of self-control generally in their lives.   

So does this mean you should introduce a daily willpower workout? 

Recently scientists around the globe have been challenging the findings that your willpower is a finite resource. In fact, Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues have found that when people believe that their willpower is unlimited, they take tiredness as a sign to dig deeper and find more resources rather than give up. 

We replicated Carol’s finding and found that when you convince people they have unlimited willpower, they don’t immediately show the drop off that has been our standard finding,” said Roy.  “It didn’t,  however, seem to hold with more severe depletion.  Just as the belief that you have unlimited physical energy may help you initially push through feelings of tiredness, without fuel and recovery you will eventually run out of energy no matter how strong your beliefs are.” 

The truth is that there is still plenty we have to learn about self-control and how it can be improved. 

“Our natural human tendency is to want to interpret research findings as a way to explain everything in the world,” explained Roy. “However, that’s generally not true, it’s often one factor among many.” 

So where might you start when it comes to improving your willpower? 

Roy suggests the following three approaches are worth trying whilst researchers continue to learn more: 

  • Exert your self-control regularly – create small daily practices that require you to exert your self-control.   For example, it might be improving your posture, completing tasks in your non-dominant hand or avoiding swearing.  Be consistent for several weeks in this practice and then try to notice if this is helping to strengthen your self-control in others areas of your life.  
     
  • Keep your body fuelled – it appears that your willpower is tied to your body’s energy system. When your self-control feels depleted and you’re feeling down, getting some food into you can restore your willpower at least for a short time. So if you find your willpower waning, take a moment to restore your body’s energy with some good food. 
     
  • Make decisions early – if you’ve had a good sleep it seems that you wake up with a full tank of willpower and as the day wears on you have less and less.  This means it’s worth making important decisions in the morning – or after lunch when you’ve fuelled your body and willpower with good food (it doesn’t work if you have a three martini lunch) – rather than later in the day when you’re less likely to be as prudent.  

And remember, when it comes to understanding human behavior, even the best studies only tell us what works for some of the people, some of the time.  So when it comes to improving your wellbeing, it’s important to be a curious and active participant in discovering what works best for you. 

What can you do to improve your willpower?  

You are reading

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Can You Have More Willpower?

Interview with Roy Baumeister

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Is Mindfulness as Easy as Mindlessness?

Interview with Ellen Langer.