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3 Ideas for Building Willpower

Do you ever struggle with willpower? Or feel like you don’t have any self-control in certain areas, like around sweets?

I’ve certainly been through this, and so has almost everyone I talk to. It’s often with food, but not always. Maybe it’s spending, smoking, drinking coffee, or any number of other things.

That’s why I was interested to discover the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.

The book is fascinating, so you’ll likely see a few blog posts about it. But to start, let’s look at what willpower is, and some things you can do to strengthen it.

3 components of willpower

It helps to understand how McGonigal defines willpower. It’s not just what most people think of, the “I won’t” part of willpower. As in, “I won’t eat chocolate at night” or “I won’t drink as much coffee.”

But there’s also an “I will” aspect. This is when you decide to start doing things you’ve been putting off. Maybe it’s, “I will make a grocery list before going to the store” or “I will drink more water.”

Even those parts aren’t enough to fully encompass willpower. As McGonigal writes: “To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.” (p. 10)

This “I want” aspect focuses on long-term goals, not short-term ones. Maybe you want the taste of the ice cream right now, but if your long-term “I want” is to eat more nutritious foods, you may reconsider.

I’m not say to never have ice cream. It’s just a matter of deciding if eating ice cream is important enough that you choose it even while knowing it doesn’t align with the long-term outcome you’re hoping for.

Why willpower can fail

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. Even when you know what you want in the long-term, you may decide on something that’s the opposite in the moment.

Or rather, you don’t “decide” in any conscious way. You simply end up doing what you didn’t intent, or you don’t do what you did intend. It seems like you simply don’t have enough willpower to go with the more difficult choice.

I’ve written before about how willpower is a limited resource, and science agrees. One of the most alarming aspects of this is that if you use willpower in one area of your life, you’re more likely to slip in another area.

“Smokers who go without a cigarette for twenty-four hours are more likely to binge on ice cream…. Perhaps most disturbingly, people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse. It’s as if there’s only so much willpower to go around.” (p. 56)

A good reason not to diet!

But that’s not the real takeaway. The key is knowing that using willpower in one area of your life impacts self-control in other areas.

The good news is, this also means that if you can improve things in one area, it will spill over into others. More on that in a bit.

The food and energy connection

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection between self-control, food, and energy. Because it highlights something I already knew intuitively.

Low energy means less willpower.

Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself. When you’re hungry and/or feeling low energy, you don’t make the best decisions. That’s why so many people suggest that you shouldn’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

And this isn’t only anecdotal. Psychologist and professor Matthew Gailliot “has found that people with low blood sugar [have more willpower failures and] are also more likely to rely on stereotypes and less likely to donate money to charity or help a stranger. It’s as if running on low energy biases us to be the worst versions of ourselves.” (p. 60)

Yet another reason not to diet!

But this also isn’t a reason to grab a snack anytime you have a willpower crisis. It’s better to understand what’s going on.

It turns out that our brains can be quite frugal in devoting energy to something, including self-control. You can think of it a bit like your brain having an energy bank. When the bank has lots of reserves, it will freely loan funds, but if things are tight, your brain is less likely to give you much of anything. Including enough energy to help with self-control.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Long ago, an energy drop could mean being on the road to starvation. In that case, passing up food or other short-term gains was the last thing you’d want to do.

As McGonigal writes: “To prevent starvation, the brain shifts to a more risk-taking, impulsive state. Indeed, studies show that modern humans are more likely to take anykind of risk when they’re hungry.” (p. 64)

Of course, things are different these days in terms of food. Reaching for a treat at every decision point is likely to have negative consequences.

Given that, how do you improve your willpower and self-control?

3 exercises to strengthen willpower

The good news is, you can bulk up your self-control just like you can your muscles. Here are a few things to focus on:

  1. Mindful eating. Eating with intention and attention should help you avoid situations where you’re so hungry you don’t have any self-control reserves. If you eat when you’re moderately hungry, and pay attention to which foods are likely to keep you satisfied for longer, you can avoid the worst of those low energy situations.

  2. Small challenges. As with building physical muscles, you want to start small. Control one small thing you’re not used to controlling. You could try using your non-dominant hand for simple things like opening doors, not crossing your legs, or avoiding using certain slang or curse words. It should be small enough that you won’t feel rebellious about it. And these baby steps can make a difference in big ways. One study even found these types of exercises “could reduce violence against a romantic partner.” (p. 67)

  3. Practice self-monitoring. Even noticing what you’re doing can help. You can grow your self-control muscle by tracking something you normally don’t. It might not make sense to track your food or exercise, since that could distract from being mindful about them, but you could track spending, how much TV you watch, how long you spend online, or whatever else makes sense for you.

An “I won’t” example

One of the small changes I’ve made recently is around the “I won’t” aspect of willpower. As in, “I won’t automatically turn on the TV in the evening to have background noise.”

I don’t quite remember when I started doing this, but it’s been a long time. I told myself I could multi-task and largely ignore what was on the TV while doing other things. I also told myself that I preferred the noise of the TV to silence.

Except of course I couldn’t really concentrate very well on other tasks. Both the sound and visuals of the TV distracted me.

And I also realized that if I’m really trying to focus, the general background noise of the heater, fridge, and cats was usually enough. But if I wanted more, I could put on some quiet music.

Even better, I found it’s more relaxing having the TV off when I’m doing other things. It’s different if I’m truly watching something, but if I’m not even intending to pay attention, that background becomes stressful.

What about you? Have you had any success with improving your self-control? Or can you think of something you’d like to try to exercise that muscle?

Either way, I hope this gives you a different perspective in thinking about willpower and self-control, and I look forward to sharing more of what I learn from the book.

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