A growing body of evidence indicates that willpower and self-control are essential for a happy and successful life.
The most persuasive evidence comes from two studies that measured young children’s self-control, and then kept track of them as they grew into adults.
The most well-known experiment, the “marshmallow experiment”, was begun in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. He offered four-year-olds the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. He and other researchers then tracked the performance of these children as they became adults. They found that children who resisted temptation (“high delayers”) achieved greater academic success, better health, and lower rates of marital separation and divorce. 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. The researchers found that childhood self-control predicted physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offenses. 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 can you improve your willpower?
You undoubtedly already know these facts about muscles:
What you may not know is that these things are also true of willpower.
In one study, participants were instructed to try to not think about a white bear. Thought-suppression tasks like this require a good deal of self-control. After completing the task, they were told to limit their intake of beer during a taste test because a driving test would follow. These participants drank a lot more beer than other participants who had not done the thought-suppression task.
In another study, people who were asked to suppress their feelings while they watched an upsetting movie gave up sooner on a subsequent test of physical stamina than did people who were allowed to freely respond to the emotional impact of the film.
In a third study, women watched a nature documentary while being seated next to or across the room from a bowl of candy. Later, they were given impossible puzzles to solve. Those who had 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.
In each of these cases, people found it difficult to slog through difficult tasks when their willpower had been depleted. But willpower can also be strengthened. Here’s how.
Weight-lifting is a great way to build muscle. But you wouldn’t spend half an hour lifting weights just before helping a friend move his furniture because you know that your muscles would be too fatigued to do a good job. Neither would you spend hours daily lifting weights with no recovery time. The same holds for willpower. 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.
In sports, coaches and trainers often draw a distinction between comfort zones and stretch zones. If you are comfortable running a 10-minute mile, increasing your pace to a 9-minute mile puts you in your stretch zone. Alternating between the two is a good way to improve your performance. But staying in your stretch zone indefinitely is not a good idea. Your risk of injury increases, and your performance will suffer in the long run due to a lack of recovery time. The same holds for willpower.
Imagination is a powerful technique for improving willpower. The body often responds to imagined situations in the same way it responds to experienced ones. If you imagine lying on a peaceful beach, listening to the waves gently lapping the shore and tasting the salty sea air, your body will respond by relaxing. If instead you imagine being late for an important meeting, your body will tense in response. You can use this to your advantage in building willpower.
For example, as willpower experts Roy Baumeister and John Tierney point out, dieting is a means for keeping oneself in a chronically depleted state. As a result, the dieter feels everything more intensely—from minor irritations to longings for food or rest. But imagination can blunt the cravings that erode your self-control.
In one study, participants were asked to watch a movie, and a bowl of chocolate candy was placed nearby. One group were told to imagine they had decided to eat as much as they wanted, a second group were told imagine they had decided to eat none, and a third group were told to imagine they’d decided to eat them later on. The first group did indeed eat more than the other two groups. But when given the opportunity to eat candy later, those who imagined they would delay eating the candy actually ate significantly less than the other two groups. They even reported having less desire for candy when queried through email following day.
You can even use your imagination to keep unwanted thoughts at bay. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), Fyodor Dostoyevsky made this observation: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” How do you avoid thinking about a white bear (or any other situation that tempts you or fills you with dread)? Train yourself to think about something else: Every time that white bear begins to lurk about in your consciousness, think about a black bear instead. Every time that unwanted thought threatens to intrude on your consciousness, think about something pleasant instead. That puts you in the driver’s seat of your thoughts.
Don’t underestimate this simple technique. In Mischel’s famous marshmallow study, “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.
In a previous post, I discussed the impact that stress has on the body. Stress, as it turns out, also strongly depletes willpower. When people are stressed, they tend to fall back on ingrained habits—whether those habits are helpful or harmful. Often, this is not a conscious choice. Rather, people resort to old habits without thinking because they are in a stressed state. Art Markman discusses this in more detail in a recent Psychology Today post.
Imagine, for example, that you have an important exam or business presentation tomorrow. Your grade in the course or your chance for a promotion depends entirely on how you perform. These are highly stressful situations, and your body will respond by boosting stress hormones, notably cortisol. How will you respond?
Cortisol boosts cravings for carbohydrates because, as we saw, carbs lower cortisol levels. So perhaps you will take solace with your friends Ben and Jerry. But the downside of dealing with stress this way is that, in the long run, you risk obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Alcohol is a depressant that lowers cortisol. But taking this route puts you at risk for alcoholism. Every time you respond to cortisol surges through unhealthy means, you strengthen those habits. This virtually guarantees that under times of stress, you will fall back on these habits.
Fortunately for us, knowledge is power. Deal with the stress-induced surge in cortisol and you’ll manage your cravings for sugar or alcohol. Almost anything that counteracts the fight-or-flight response will do the trick. So start responding to mild stressors with healthier choices, such as listening to calming music, visualizing or viewing calming scenes, moderate exercise—whatever works for you. In fact, using comedy videos and surprise gifts, researchers demonstrated that inducing a good mood can overcome willpower-depletion effects.
The more you strengthen these habits, the more likely they will be there to rescue you when a major stressor comes along.
Oftentimes, people give up not because they lack willpower, but because they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the goal they must accomplish. A good way to deal with this feeling of overwhelm is to break the goal down into manageable pieces, and line them up in a sequence that guarantees success.
A journalist friend of mine (who is constantly facing impossible deadlines) once described her strategy this way: “Here’s how I do it,” she said. “It’s like eating an elephant—one bite at a time, and you’re not allowed to look up to see how much is left.”
After I stopped laughing at the image, it occurred to me that this was virtually the same advice another friend had given me about how to improve my running distance: Run as many laps as you can right now, she advised, then set a goal to add just one more lap each week. Following this advice, my daily runs progressed from a paltry half-mile to three miles in a few months.
The beauty of this strategy is that it not only guarantees success, it guarantees that you will never put yourself in a state of willpower depletion. As you reach each subgoal, you will derive an enormous sense of satisfaction and pride in yourself, making it that much easier to tackle the next one. When you reach the final goal, you are more likely to feel a sense of abundance and strength rather than the more typical response of “I’m so exhausted, I could sleep for a week.”
It takes an enormous amount of effort to suppress your normal personality, preferences, and behaviors. Not surprisingly, doing so depletes willpower. Psychologist Mark Muraven and colleagues found that people who exert this kind of self-control in order to please others were more easily depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to those who are secure and comfortable with themselves.
I don’t care much for most types of candy, but, like most women, chocolate is a different matter. So I cannot and will not keep it in the house. When my children brought home trick or treat candy, my husband was under strict orders to hide the chocolate where I would not find it. My side of the contract was not to look for it and not to ask for it. Knowing my weakness, I enacted a plan. And it has worked for years.
As Baumeister points out, "People with low willpower use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises." Avoid places that will tax your willpower. If you can’t avoid temptation, make a plan in advance for what you are going to do INSTEAD of succumbing.
Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins, June 21, 2013
Dr. Cummins is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press) and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.