In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities.
But what's the one thing surveys show most everyone will admit they have a problem with?
And who is most likely to give in to temptation?
Ironically, it's the people who think they have the most willpower.
Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. For example, smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight. [The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It]
So how can we really increase willpower? What does science have to say?
Here are seven ways you can increase your own willpower and live a better life:
1) "Keystone" habits are a magic bullet
Everyone wants a magic bullet. One pill that fixes everything. The closest thing in the area of willpower is what are called "keystone habits."
The primary one is exercise. What's so special about running or lifting weights? It doesn't just give you more discipline at the gym…
It also makes you eat better. And helps you use your credit card less. And makes you more productive at work. And more patient with loved ones.
When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly… "Exercise spills over," said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. "There's something about it that makes other good habits easier." [The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business]
Going to the gym is too much for you? Try food journaling. Just write down everything you eat, every day. It's another powerful keystone habit.
(For more on why this works, go here.)
So if you're going to do anything, keystone habits get the best bang for your buck. What else should you do every day?
2) Do important things early
It's highest early in the day but as we make more decisions, it empties like a gas tank.
This leads to a simple answer: do the most important things first. As the day goes on it will only get harder to face big challenges.
When do most self-control failures happen?
At night. Roy explains:
The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.
(To see the schedule that the most productive people use, click here.)
So your willpower is limited. What else can this tell us about the best way to use it?
3) Improve willpower by not using willpower
Research shows we don't use much willpower when something is a habit, when our behaviors are automatic.
How do you build good habits? Here's a fantastic interview with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit:
Building new habits is too hard, you say? Then try this:
Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn't do hard.
Hide the cookies and put your running shoes next to the bed.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change. [The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work]
People who think they have a lot of willpower expose themselves to more temptation — and eventually cave. So don't rely on willpower.
(More on building good habits here.)
Now comes the part where I contradict myself…
4) Use willpower to build willpower
I know, I know… I just told you not to use willpower, now I'm telling you to use willpower. What gives?
Baumeister compares willpower to a muscle. When you use it too much, it gets tired and gives out.
But by exercising it, over time it gets stronger. So you don't want to rely on willpower for everything. You want to rely on habits.
But you want to make sure to tap into willpower a bit every day, always pushing yourself a bit to grow that muscle over time.
How simple can your daily self-control exercise be? Merely working on your posture can produce willpower benefits.
Unexpectedly, the best results came from the group working on posture. That tiresome old advice—"Sit up straight!"—was more useful than anyone had imagined. By overriding their habit of slouching, the students strengthened their willpower and did better at tasks that had nothing to do with posture. [Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength]
(For more self-control exercises go here.)
Simple is good, right? Want to know other crazy simple things that can help? Want to improve willpower in your sleep?
5) Fundamentals: eat and sleep
Yes, improving willpower is as easy as eating and getting enough sleep.
Want to wake up full of willpower? It's as easy as getting more sleep at night.
We shouldn't need to be told something so obvious, but cranky toddlers aren't the only ones who resist much needed naps. Adults routinely shortchange themselves on sleep, and the result is less self-control. [Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength]
(More on how to get a great night's sleep here.)
Eating and sleeping not easy enough for you? Here's something even easier.
6) Procrastinating can improve willpower
Ever been so lazy you put things off that you actually enjoy? This can actually boost self-control.
You don't even have to say no to every temptation to gain discipline. Just postponing them can help too.
Research shows telling yourself "Not now, but later" is far more powerful than "No, you can't have that."
…people who had told themselves "Not now, but later" were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups… Those in the postponement condition actually ate significantly less than those in the self-denial condition… [Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength]
Anything other than just giving in helps strengthen your willpower muscle.
(Learn how to beat procrastination here.)
Okay, now's the time for the bad news…
7) You're going to screw up… but that's okay
You're going to give in to temptation. That's not defeatist; it's reality. But what matters is what you do after.
Feeling the urge to beat yourself up over your lack of willpower? Don't do it. No Mea Culpas are necessary.
Blaming yourself reduces self-control. Showing self-compassion increases it.
Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both "I will" power and "I want" power. In contrast, self-compassion— being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure— is associated with more motivation and better self-control. [The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It]
People who cut themselves slack go on to keep trying — and end up succeeding.
(For more on increasing your resilience, click here.)
So how does all of this fit together?
Give the 7 a try:
1. "Keystone habits" are a magic bullet
2. Do important things early
3. Improve willpower by not using willpower
4. Use willpower to build willpower
5. Fundamentals: eat and sleep
6. Procrastinating can improve willpower
7. You're going to screw up… and that's okay
I'm sure to some people this sounds hard and lonely. But it doesn't have to be a solitary thing.
Relationships improve willpower: the best way to accomplish any change is by having a supportive group of friends around you.
And the reverse is true as well: willpower improves relationships:
…the more total self-control, the better the relationship fared. Multiple benefits were found for having mutually high self-control, including relationship satisfaction, forgiveness, secure attachment, accommodation, healthy and committed styles of loving, smooth daily interactions, absence of conflict, and absence of feeling rejected. [ "The sum of friends' and lovers' self-control scores predicts relationship quality" from Social Psychological and Personality Science]
Willpower is one of the first steps in improving any area of life — and it's good to know that self-control isn't selfish.
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