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9 Ways to Harness Your Willpower

We all have weak moments. These strategies can carry you through.

Image by Tumisu, pixabay, CC0
Source: Image by Tumisu, pixabay, CC0

“Lose Weight Without Willpower!”
“Willpower Can’t Help You Change! This Can.”

Quit Smoking! No Willpower Needed!”
Image by Tumisu, pixabay, CC0
Source: Image by Tumisu, pixabay, CC0

You may have seen ads like this, trumpeting methods of changing a habit that require absolutely no willpower whatsoever. But can you really change a bad habit (or create a good one) without willpower?

To answer this question, we first have to ask, “What is willpower?” Most people, sadly, think of it only as the ability to clench their teeth and resist attractive temptations. In this view, willpower means self-denial, a Spartan lifestyle, and no fun. No wonder people hope to make changes without it.

I define willpower as “using only the thought of your motivators to control your actions.” Let's say your motivators are "prevent diabetes" and "reach a healthy weight." So if you are at the all-you-can-eat buffet, you think about your motivator—avoid diabetes through weight loss—and you take small portions and avoid the dessert table. (Yes, this is hard. See more below.)

So, amazingly enough, willpower begins with a thought—a bright idea—some way to improve your life or contribute to others. This bright idea is your motivator. Dr. Walter Mischel, an expert on willpower skills, uses the evocative term, “a burning goal.” Whether you call it a motivator, a burning goal, or a bright idea, this idea is the force behind your willpower.

Your Bright Idea

What sort of bright ideas—motivators--make for effective willpower? Any goal that you value strongly. In my book, Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, I discuss 8 great motivators, including: good health; self-respect; a better future for your family; personal mission; and being a role model for your child—as well as not-so-noble motivators like vanity that can also drive a positive change.

Change Without Willpower?

So, can you change a habit without any willpower at all? No. Unless you are locked up somewhere and forced to make a change, you must have a bright idea to power your change. Remembering what matters most to you—your motivator—will activate your willpower. But is it wise to rely only on willpower to make a change? Not at all.

Even people with strong willpower find that self-control will fail them in certain situations. All of us can fall prey to one of the enemies of willpower, notably:

  • Stress
  • Decision fatigue
  • Temptation
  • Self-criticism

Supplements for "Vitamin W"

Since everyone’s willpower is depleted in these situations, we all need back-ups. Here are 9 supplements to fortify your own willpower. Some focus on strengthening your mind; others help you modify your world so you don't need to use as much willpower. (I’ll bet the ninth is news to you; it was to me.)

  1. Remind yourself of the “why” of your change—your bright idea. People need a sense of purpose to persist in a habit change. Studies by psychologist Mark Muraven illustrate the power of “why.” In one, study participants were asked to work on two frustrating puzzles. Group 1 was told, “Your work could help create new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.” Group 2 was only told, “Try your best.” Which group performed better? Group 1. The idea that they could be helping others gave their task purpose. To activate your willpower, ask the simple question: “Why am I doing this?” and remind yourself of your purpose.
  2. Make a specific plan for change. “To exercise more” is a good general goal but not specific enough to guide your behavior. A specific plan might be to set aside four times per week for exercising and to write those times in your calendar until they become a habit.
  3. Find more supportive groups and friends. At least at first, seek to avoid friends or other people who are linked to the old habit you want to change. Instead, stick with less risky friends or find support groups of like-minded people who can remind you of your goal—12-step groups, for example, give you the opportunity to refresh your motivation with every meeting.
  4. Change your environment. Depending on your motivator, stay away from bars, casinos, or, yes, all-you-can-eat buffets. At home, design a healthy-eating environment. Among the creative suggestions from expert Brian Wansink: Make unhealthy foods invisible by putting them at the back of the refrigerator or cupboard while keeping healthy foods within easy reach and use smaller plates for portion control.
  5. Reframe the problem. When you feel cravings for a cigarette, a drink, or a cookie, for example, think of those cravings as inconveniences rather than uncontrollable urges.
  6. Reward yourself. Employ some simple rewards to reinforce your willpower. Research by Muraven showed that the possibility of earning extra money was enough to motivate lab subjects to persevere on hard tasks.
  7. Distract yourself. Since cravings only tend to last 15 minutes, figure out ways to focus on something other than a second piece of cake. Read, sing, call a friend, or watch TV. After a few minutes, you'll forget about that cake—especially if you've wrapped it up and put it where you can't see it.
  8. Give it a rest! If your willpower is flagging after a hard day of making decisions, warding off stress, or resisting temptation, take a break! Nap, walk, or meditate until you feel stronger.

Finally—and most surprisingly:

  • 9. Cultivate emotions like gratitude, compassion, and love. This fascinating idea comes from psychologist David DeSteno. We usually think of emotions like gratitude as having more to do with building well-being than willpower. But DeSteno argues that practicing these emotions in daily life leads to behaviors and attitudes that curb the desire for immediate gratification. And perhaps the experience of well-being makes unhealthy habits easier to resist.

Even though you can’t change a habit without some willpower, you can use these 9 strategies to bypass temptations and re-charge your batteries. How do you increase or back up your willpower so that you can make your own bright idea a reality?

© Meg Selig, 2014

I recently realized that I am celebrating the 5th anniversary month of my book about willpower: Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Help me celebrate by taking a look here or here. Buy and benefit! To help others, order a copy for your library. I invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.