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Self-regulation Failure (Part 4): 8 Tips to Strengthen Willpower

What can you do to maximize your self-regulatory strength?

Effective self-regulation is crucial to our personal success and well-being in so many ways. What can you do to maximize your self-regulatory strength?

Ecclesiastes (12:12) wrote, "And further . . . take note of this: of the making of books there is no end, and much learning is a weariness to the flesh." It stands to reason, by the time you get to Part 4 of self-regulation failure, you may well be thinking the same thing and feeling this weariness too.

So, here are some quick tips based on the research literature of things that seem to boost our self-regulatory strength and success.

1. The "willpower is like a muscle" metaphor seems to be a good fit, as the capacity for self-regulation can be increased with regular exercise. Even two weeks of self-regulatory exercise has improved research participants' self-regulatory stamina. So, take on some small self-regulatory task and stick to it. This can be as simple as deliberately maintaining good posture, to engaging in a regular exercise program. The key element seems to be exercising your self-discipline. You don't need to start big, just be consistent and mindful of your focus.

2. Sleep and rest seem to restore the ability to self-regulate. If you seem to be at the end of your rope, unable to cope and unwilling to do the next task, first ask yourself if you're getting enough sleep?

3. A corollary to sleep and rest is that self-regulation later in the day is less effective. Be as strategic as possible, and don't look to exercise feats of willpower later in the day.

4. A boost of positive emotion has been shown to eliminate self-regulatory impairment. Find things, people, events that make you feel good to replenish your willpower strength.

5. Make an implementation intention as a plan for action. This takes a specific form: "In situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve my goal Z"; or "If this happens, then I'll do this" (anticipating possible obstacles to your goal pursuit). The effect of these intentions is to put the stimulus for action into the environment and make the control of behavior a nonconscious process.

6. Self-regulation appears to depend on available blood glucose. Even a single act of self-regulation has been shown to reduce the amount of available glucose in the bloodstream, impairing later self-regulatory attempts. Interestingly, just a drink of sugar-sweetened lemonade eliminated this self-regulatory depletion in experiments. The message from this research, don't get hypoglycemic, your self-regulation will suffer. Keep a piece of fruit handy (complex carbohydrate) to restore blood glucose.

7. Be aware that social situations can require more self-regulation and effort than you may think. For example, if you're typically an introverted person but you have to act extraverted, or you have to suppress your desired reaction (scream at your boss) in favor of what is deemed more socially acceptable (acquiesce again to unreasonable demands), you will deplete your willpower for subsequent action. These social interactions may even make it more likely that you'll say or do something you'll regret in subsequent interactions. Getting along with others requires self-regulation, so you'll need to think about points 1-6 to be best prepared to deal with demanding social situations.

8. Finally, as I wrote in Part 3, so much of our ability to self-regulate depends on our motivation. Even on an empty stomach, exhausted from not enough sleep and pushed to the limit for self-regulation, we can muster the willpower to continue to act appropriately. Any parent knows this is true. It's difficult, but it can be done, particularly if we focus on our values and goals to keep perspective on more than just the present moment. In doing this, we can transcend the immediate (and temporary) feelings we're having to keep from giving in to feel good which lies at the heart of so much self-regulatory failure.

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