Who among us has not made a plan to get up in the morning and exercise, but then hit snooze one time too many, sleeping through our morning jog?
We may have been super-inspired by the incredible brain-boosting properties of exercise. We may have had every intention to start an exercise plan and stick to it. But then… we didn’t. Our warm bed sucked us in. We’ll exercise tomorrow.
What we need is willpower. Once we get in the habit of exercising, or of staying calm in the face of a toddler meltdown, of not checking our email after five o’clock, or of doing anything else we want to have the resolve to do, we don’t need to try so hard. But for now, because we are in the habit of pushing snooze, or yelling, or checking email compulsively all evening — we need self-discipline.
Here are five tips for strengthening your willpower.
1.Get enough sleep. That’s seven to eight hours for adults, at least nine for teens, or 10 to 12 for elementary and middle school kids.
Sleep deprivation makes us susceptible to temptations, like Facebook and that chocolate covered cookie over there, for physiological reasons. Self-control takes a ton of brain power, and when we are tired, our bodies don’t tend to deliver enough glucose to our brain for it to get the willpower engine going.
2. Meditate for five minutes a day. Sit up straight and focus your attention on your breath. When your mind wanders, as it will, you’ll be building willpower when you simply notice that your mind has wandered and you bring your attention back to your breath.
As Kelly McGonigal notes in her awesome book The Willpower Instinct, the worse you are at meditation, the better it is as an exercise for building self-control. Here’s why: In order to check your impulsive tendency to snag that donut off the counter, you need to build self-awareness.
When you are aware of what you are doing (e.g., “I’m feeling tempted to scarf that down.”), you’re actually engaging the part of your brain you need for willpower, rather than letting your impulses take over. Meditation gives you practice at engaging your self-awareness; as a bonus, deep slow breathing also helps strengthen your self-control.
3. Lay off the cocktails. Science of the blazingly obvious, I know, but face it: We often have a glass of wine right before we need willpower to make healthy choices at dinner. Alcohol lowers your blood glucose, which a series of studies shows can dramatically weaken your willpower. (You’d be better off drinking sugary soda before testing your will, although I’m not actually recommending that.)
Alcohol also reduces self-awareness, and it is self-awareness that we need most to bring us back to our goals (see #2 and #5).
4. Make a plan for dealing with the temptations you will face. What will you do when things go wrong? Don’t leave your answer to chance or your whims; instead, write out a plan, however simple.
If you are trying to stop snapping at your children when they’re running late, make a plan for what you’ll do when the’re dawdling and you are in a big, big hurry. Write out what you’ll do instead of yelling—e.g., take deep breaths, walk away from the car, etc.
If you do blow it? Forgive yourself and move on. You are only human, and judging yourself as a bad parent or lazy slob will make you less likely to meet your goals, and more likely to give into your impulses.
5. Remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing, and what you will lose if you give up. Why are you trying to start your new habit or quit your old one? Be honest as you do this; remind yourself what you really want, rather than what you think you should want.
For example, I could tell myself, or my neighbors, that I’m exercising more because I want to be a good role model for my children (what I should want). But what I really want even more than that is to fit into my jeans and feel healthy. Research suggests that these less moralistic motives tend to be more effective.
So ask yourself, frequently: How do you want to feel? Then visualize what you will lose if you give in to temptation.
I’ve mined literally dozens more tips for improving willpower and forming habits from the four amazing, research-based books listed below. If you want a concrete plan for strengthening your willpower and you have time to read only one, I recommend McGonigal’s book.
What works for you when you most need willpower? Help others by leaving a comment below; I’ll try to reply with the scientific reasons why your tactic might work for others!
Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Group US, 2011.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Publishing Group, 2012.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. Penguin Group US, 2011.
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.