10 Counterintuitive Ways To Improve Willpower
Results from an annual Stress in America Survey issued by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that, “…participants often cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with [beneficial] changes.” We often feel that if we could improve our willpower, we would be able to overcome dietary detriments, quit smoking or drinking alcohol, stop texting our exes during overconsumption of aforementioned alcohol, and finally muster the strength to follow through with our pursuits and accomplish our dreams. Willpower is something that many of us assume is innate or out of reach. As we fight to resist temptations and trudge forward with our goals, the agony of missteps on our way to success can seem to dismantle our resolve, and once again willpower feels like something that we simply can’t get right.
The fact of the matter is that we actually all have the capacity for self-discipline and control, but we often don’t know how to tap into the proper mechanisms to practice willpower and see the results we so desperately crave. You may have resolved at one point or another to hit the gym more often, and for a few weeks you found yourself poised to train for a marathon. Then, suddenly, you lost the strength to keep up with your routine, and found your success inexplicably hindered by a sudden loss of motivation. Or, perhaps, you had tried to quit smoking and — after going cold turkey — were able to be nicotine-free for several months. Suddenly, a craving hit out of nowhere and you were back to smoking a pack of day. What went wrong?
The truth is, sometimes our best efforts are what gets in the way of building willpower. Rather than take small steps toward success, we live in a society that promotes a “go big or go home” mentality, and the inability to keep up with this pace leaves us feeling steeped in guilt and failure. While you may be feeling that you simply don’t have the gumption to make changes, or are weaker than your seemingly strong-willed comrades, the problem may simply lie in the fact that you need to be a bit more counterintuitive when it comes to willpower. There are several tricks to building greater resolve and self-control that actually seem opposite of what you should do to be successful. In order to improve your willpower, you need to eschew convention by allowing yourself to occasionally give into temptation, abstain from always hitting the “snooze” button on your alarm, and even throwing out the term “willpower” once in a while. Below, we will detail 10 of the best and most counterintuitive ways to build willpower and finally see your goals come to fruition.
Enjoy A Sugary Snack
Partaking in a sweet treat can seem very counterintuitive, particularly when you’re trying to increase your willpower for something like a diet. However, even those on diets need to eat three balanced meals a day, with snacks in between. Despite what many fad diet ads and media aficionados would have us believe, offering yourself a burst of glucose can actually help improve willpower and prevent you from straying from your chosen path. According to FastCompany, “[Psychologist Roy F.] Baumeister and other researchers at Florida State University found that when study participants performed acts of self-control, their blood glucose levels were greatly reduced, which led to poor performance on following tasks involving willpower. But when the participants consumed a glucose drink, their willpower was no longer impaired.” Now, while sugar is important to boost brain function, it should also be noted that simple sugars and snacks like donuts — which involve a large heap of empty calories — shouldn’t be the focal point of a snack. Pairing lean proteins with complex carbohydrates is the best way to boost brain power, as these offer a shot of glucose along with sustained energy.
Are you struggling with willpower? Perhaps you should sleep on it. In a society that values overtime and steeling against any lulls or breaks, taking a snooze seems completely counterintuitive to increasing willpower. However, delving back into toddler routines of scheduled nap times can actually be monumental to strengthening your resolve. It’s actually not too complicated to understand; when we overwork ourselves and lack rest, we no longer have the energy to put in our best efforts. In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister wrote, “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.” So, how long should an adult napping session be? According to several studies evidenced by The Guardian, “A nap of 60 minutes improves alertness up to 10 hours.” The ideal napper would enjoy 90 to 120 minutes of napping in order to reap all the benefits of sleep, “including REM and deep slow-wave sleep, which helps to clear your mind, improve memory recall, and recoup lost sleep.” Still, for many of us, this length of z’s during the day isn’t realistic. If this is the case for you, you can try a “power nap” of 45 minutes, which will still provide many benefits in the areas of creativity, brain activity, and overall health.
Please finish reading the rest of this glorious list, and then go take a snooze!
Think About Your Usual Routine And Do The Opposite
Huh? That’s right, taking a walk in a place known as Bizarro World — where everything is opposite from what it should be — can help strengthen your willpower. Often times our habits and routine are exactly what keeps hampering our resolve. Change can be scary, but it is also beneficial to increasing our willpower. Remember that every habit and routine is a learned one, and in order to strengthen willpower, we often have to train ourselves — or re-train ourselves, rather — to do something that may not necessarily be comfortable at first. Social psychologist at Columbia University and author of the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Heidi Grant Holvorson, elaborated on this point in an article for RealSimple. She wrote: “Like a muscle, your resolve can be strengthened over time with practice, even if you’re not trying to correct a specific bad habit. Anytime you modify your routine, you’re developing self-control. For example, try to brush your teeth or open doors with your nondominant hand. Once you’ve succeeded in making a tiny change, you can work toward accomplishing something more substantive.”
Often times, the hardest part of a change or following a new routine is actually just getting started. Basic human nature often causes us to think in extremes. Wannabe novelists may never begin writing what could be an acclaimed book because the thought of writing 300-1,000 pages seems astronomical. What if they simply thought in terms of writing one chapter — or even half of a chapter — a day? Small steps can actually lead to greater success than attempting to take on a vast project all at once.
Accept Missteps and Failures
Tough love can be beneficial — particularly when we need a little bit of coaxing when it comes to strengthening our resolve. However, setbacks are a natural part of every process, particularly when said process involves an increase in willpower. Ex-smokers often experience relapses before kicking cigarettes for good, and those who are attempting to loose weight and exercise may experience slips with dieting here and there. It may seem counterintuitive, but practicing acceptances and forgiving you mistakes can actually aid in improving willpower and prevent other tumbles off the proverbial wagon. Kelly McGonigal taught a regaled course titled The Science of Willpower for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program, and presented several of her science-based ideas for increasing willpower in the book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. One of her ideas noted the importance of cutting yourself some slack when experiencing a setback, noting that, “studies show that people who experience shame/guilt are much more likely to break their resolutions than ones who cut themselves some slack. In a nutshell, you should ‘Give up guilt.’”
If anything, distractions can seem like a proverbial form of kryptonite to any of those trying to strengthen their resolve. In fact, the term “distraction” seems to go hand-in-hand with other maladaptive titles like, “procrastination” or “laziness.” So how can getting distracted possibly be beneficial to increasing willpower? The reason that distractedness can sometimes be a good thing is because it allows us to take a breather from what can be a strenuous task. For example, if you’re struggling with having the willpower to avoid straying from a diet or smoking that emergency cigarette you have hidden under a myriad of post-its and paperclips in your desk, finding something benign to occupy your thoughts can help you to steel yourself against temptations. In an article for Women’s Health, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ethan Kross, provided a few anecdotes on how happy distractions can increase willpower. “A lot of data suggests that it helps to turn your attention to an engaging alternative,” he stated. “It’s the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach.”
You can take a brisk walk around the neighborhood, or channel your inner artist by creating some fun doodles. If you have a penchant for nostalgia, I personally avoid cueing up YouTube and revisiting the legendary (yes, I’m stating right here and now that it’s legendary) 1997 music video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the hunky quintet known as The Backstreet Boys — or BSB if you’re a diehard fan.
Don’t Make Leaps and Bounds
Earlier, we noted how taking things day by day and abstaining from thinking too hard about the “big picture” is beneficial to willpower. It is also important to start out small when working to make changes that will improve your quality of life. Let’s face it — change is hard. It may seem novel to start big and operate through leaps and bounds, but going too big too soon is overwhelming, and can often hinder your goals by depleting energy. Mark Muravan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Albany, noted that, “Regularly engaging in small acts of willpower can help increase your capacity for self-control in the long run.”
Do you have a goal to run a marathon, but have a workout regimen that includes exercising less than twice a month? Try walking a couple days and week and build from there. If you want to quit smoking but aren’t at a place where going cold turkey is an option, try to reduce your cigarette intake by doing things like abstaining from smoking in the car, or set a realistic date to begin replacing cigarettes with nicotine replacement products. Dieters can also benefit from starting out small. Perhaps you could start out by switching from white bread to whole wheat bread, or replace a dessert item with a fruit dish or a low-fat alternative for one meal each day. Once you have successfully completed this goal, you can work toward other accomplishments which will build your confidence, and it won’t be long until your willpower has been strengthened, and these healthy habits become second nature.
Start Your Day With The Most Grueling Task
When you’ve started your day and are waiting painstakingly for your morning cup of joe to kick in, the last thing you want to do is attack the most grueling project of the day. Isn’t it a better idea to take on the smaller, easier tasks first and save the worst for last? Actually, operating under this notion is completely detrimental and can be a deathtrap for willpower. Although it is never fun to take on the toughest projects first — particularly when you have barely started your day — getting these things out of the way is the perfect recipe for success. Remember that shrewd psychologist and author, Baumeister, that we already mentioned a couple of times on this list? Well, we’re revisiting his advice once more for this item, because the guy is basically an unremitting purveyor of good ideas. He feels that people need to tackle the hardest tasks first, because as the day progresses, our energy wanes and it is less likely that tough projects will be completed successfully — or possibly, even at all.
“The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening,” he stated. “Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.” Not only is this good advice, but picture the unadulterated joy you will experience after accomplishing your most dreaded task long before the day has ended. From there, everything else will just feel like smooth sailing, and you can arrive at each subsequent task with a sense of accomplishment.
Wait, what? Didn’t we just talk about taking on our toughest tasks first and how postponing said tasks is maladaptive? Allow me to elaborate…
You still need to start each day with the most grueling task to improve willpower. The things you need to postpone are those that are detrimental to your resolve. In other words, marking something as completely off limits can actually cause you to tread into the world of reverse psychology, where taking something away completely only makes you want it more. Bausmeister (yup, we’re going to reference this guy again) spoke of approaching temptation with the thought of “not now, but later” rather than “no, you can’t have that” in his book Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. He used chocolate cake as an example: “…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…The result suggests that telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree—and can be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat.”
Don’t Use Willpower To Improve Willpower
What the…? Hear me out.
An article for Time referenced productivity guru, Tim Ferriss, research, and an in-depth interview with author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, to illustrate how “willpower is overrated.” Basically, we don’t have the vast supply of willpower — or the ability to build up a vast supply — that we may think that we have. Those who tote having strengthened their willpower or who think that their inimitable resolve is inborn are sadly mistaken, and they are likely setting themselves up for failure. Yes, willpower is important, but we should focus more heavily on honing the limited supply we have to create habits that we can stick to. Now, building habits may seem to go hand-in-hand with willpower, but forming a habit can actually be a product of environmental manipulation. Are you having trouble caving late at night with a midnight snack? Make sure that there aren’t any cookies or pints of ice cream available in your cupboards and refrigerator. Have you been working on quitting smoking, but find yourself plagued by a nicotine craving every time you drive to work? Instruct your spouse or roommate to hide your pack of cigarettes from you at night, so you won’t have any at your disposal in the morning.
According to the Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work: “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.” What you may not realize is that the things you are trying to avoid — like smoking or desserts or stalking an ex’s Facebook — are all habits themselves. You learned the behavior and it eventually became second nature. All you have to do now is manipulate your environment to un-learn that behavior and replace it with a new, more productive habit.
Oh Yeah, And Remember To Also Use Willpower To Improve Willpower
Oh, contradiction, how you slay me. Yes, I am about to say the complete opposite of what I just noted in the list item #2. Time and Baumeister note that relying on habits is the most integral way to reach your goals, but that the limited supply of willpower we have at our disposal still needs to be tapped into each day. Baumeister refers to willpower as a muscle, and that it should be utilized each day to build strength. Conversely, overworking the willpower muscle — as is the case with other muscles — can lead to fatigue and an inability to keep exercising. Too much of anything can be a bad thing, as is the case with those who compulsively exercise, take diets to extremes, and overwork themselves in their careers. Willpower can strengthen and grow over time, as can other muscles, but it needs to be treated moderately.
In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength, Baumesiter offered an example of how practicing a bit of a good thing each day can lead to better self-control. He wrote of how students her were instructed to “sit up straight” over time were able to avoid slouching, and subsequently became more productive during their daily activities. “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.”