We have limited amounts of willpower, but the good thing is, all of us can learn to increase it.
Have you ever decided to quit smoking, eat exclusively for health, and avoid social media? Have you promised yourself a workout routine every January but could never follow through?
You failed because you ran out of self-control or willpower.
What are the secrets to increasing your willpower, also called drive, determination, resolve, self-discipline, and self-control?
Science says a key point in being able to exercise your willpower is to be aware of the times you fail at it; only then can you begin to make changes.
In fact, the mere act of becoming more self-aware is enough to drive change in some people’s lives.
We explore the basics of willpower from Kelly McGonigal’s bookWillpower Instinct (Maximum Willpower). It explores the science of self-control, using research to show how willpower works and how to have more of it.
How To Increase Your Willpower
Psychologists see willpower as a muscle that can be exhausted by overuse, but can also be trained to keep functioning in peak form for long periods.
The first idea is to consciously stop our willpower from getting depleted, and the second is to train our willpower regularly to help it grow stronger.
Here are six science-backed strategies to increase your willpower:
- Self-forgiveness and self-compassion increase self-control.
- Meditation, sleep, exercise, and relaxation—all help to boost willpower.
- When we submit to temptation and feel guilty, we lessen our ability to regulate future actions.
- The self-control of our social circle affects our own—both poor and strong self-control are easy to catch.
- We are more likely to do something bad if we have done something good. After good behavior, we grant ourselves unwritten permission to yield to bad behavior.
- Social proof has a significant impact on our actions. We are more likely to do what those around us are doing. These may be either positive or negative behaviors.
Summary of “The Willpower Instinct” or “Maximum Willpower”
Willpower Instinct (Maximum Willpower) gathers scientific insights into self-control from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. The author shows how we can:
- replace our bad habits with healthy ones,
- hack our procrastination habit, and
- handle negative emotions.
You can learn how to increase your willpower and self-control, rise above your limitations, and escape chronic stress and anxiety.
“Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut).”– Kelly McGonigal
We summarize some insights from the book that also goes as Maximum Willpower.
Willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t, and I want.
The strength of our willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t and I want.
- “I won’t” power is the ability to say no even when you want to say yes. This is simply the ability to resist temptation. Each temptation is an “I won’t” willpower challenge asking if we have the strength to say No.
- “I will” power is the ability to do what you dislike now for a better future. “I will” power helps take up and complete those tasks that are necessary to achieve your goals but are cumbersome or unpleasant.
- “I want” power is the capacity to remember what you truly want. Regardless of current temptations, what you actually want is what is best for you in the long run. To fight the present, you must have clear long-term goals to guide your daily actions. This boosts your “I want” power by reminding you of what’s at stake.
Willpower is about harnessing all three of these powers – I will, I won’t, I want – to reach your goals and avoid trouble.
Most people believe the lack of willpower is the biggest reason they fail to achieve their goals – health, fitness, money, career, academics, time management, and relationships.
When you understand why you lose your willpower or self-control, you learn how to avoid the willpower traps and willpower mistakes.
Willpower is a biological instinct to protect us from long-term harm.
Our brains are complex organs. Inside, millions of processes operate in tandem to keep us alive, without our knowing. Understanding how our brains handle emotions can allow us to control our behaviors.
Our body’s fight-or-flight response system is an instinct that sets off when we confront a frightening or life-threatening situation. It’s our body’s ability to spend all of its resources to get us out of harm’s way.
Willpower, similarly, is also founded on a biological instinct. A study showed a willpower challenge can elicit a unique instinctive state in our brain and body that can boost our willpower.
This is known as the pause-and-plan reaction, and it is substantially different from the fight-or-flight response:
While the fight-or-flight response raises your awareness of an exterior threat and increases your pace (like avoiding the snake), the pause-and-plan response moves your focus to the internal conflict between your rational and impulsive sides and slows you down to help you control your impulse (like avoiding the cookie).
Mindfulness meditation can increase self-awareness which helps to avoid distractions and boost self-control.
We have limited willpower on a given day. When our minds are busy, we run low on willpower. When your mind is distracted or preoccupied, it is easier for the immediate temptation to overwhelm your long-term ambitions.
In a study, the researchers instructed students to remember a phone number while choosing which snack to eat during the experiment: chocolate or fruit.
Those with their minds preoccupied picked chocolate 50% more often than students who did not receive a memorizing exercise.
But there is a practical and accessible solution to deal with distractions: Mindfulness Meditation.
Neuroscientists have found people who regularly meditate have more grey matter in their brain regions responsible for self-awareness. So, there is an organ-level change that reflects positively on our attention and higher levels of performance.
Mindfulness meditation helps us develop moment-to-moment self-awareness, which allows us to recognize whenever we get distracted so that we can refocus our attention on the work at hand.
Scientists have discovered only three hours of regular meditation can increase self-control and create a longer attention span. And after 11 hours of practice, the gray matter changes in the brain are already visible.
At times, distractions might overwhelm us too strongly. We may find ourselves simply unable to stop giving in a tempting act.
In such cases, again, mindfulness meditation can help us refocus our attention on our long-term goals, end the distraction cycle, and regain our willpower.
So, there are two takeaways here:
- Whenever in such distracting situations, avoid making important decisions.
- Develop self-awareness through mindfulness meditation, and avoid willpower failures.
What happens when we yield to a bad habit?
When we turn slaves to a terrible habit, we react by either:
- feeling guilt and regret, or
- exhibiting the “what the heck” effect.
In either case, we are more likely to succumb to that temptation again. When that happens, it is much worse than the first time. This makes the whole self-control process shaky, and we get primed to lose control again.
Fortunately, there is a way to break the cycle: Forgive yourself (learn here how to do it).
“We think about our future selves like different people. We … expect our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage. (But) The future you is just as you as you are right now.”
Moral licensing is when we justify being bad because we already did something good.
You may justify your overeating (perhaps a giant pizza) at dinner because “I just ran eight miles, so I deserve this.”
What The Hell (WTH) Effect
We’ve all heard of the diet trap known as the “what the hell effect.”
“I already ruined my diet today with that ice cream, so WTH, I might as well eat the whole pizza,” it goes.
Recognizing that one miss does not have to derail the entire project, can help you to learn how to break the loop and deal with setbacks or slip-ups.
The way to do so is to build more self-compassion and self-forgiveness instead of self-criticism and guilt.
Willpower is Contagious
Good and bad behaviors spread across social networks.
Obesity spreads through social networks, and if a person’s friend becomes obese, their chances of becoming obese increase by 171%.
Willpower and self-control behaviors transmit across social networks, just like obesity-causing behaviors.
If you hang out with people who are setting goals and overcoming willpower challenges, you are more likely to join in and succeed.
Goals are contagious, and spending time with the right people can boost your willpower.
Some willpower-boosting strategies from the book:
- Meditation and relaxation,
- Breath control and exercise,
- Nutrition (including maintaining blood sugar),
- Spending time in nature, and
- Learning how to deal with willpower-draining things, like mind-wandering, stress, anxiety, depression, sleep loss, and being surrounded by triggers like food.
Why it is important to boost our willpower?
According to research, people with more willpower are happier and healthier, have more satisfying and long-lasting relationships, are more successful, make more money, and even live longer lives. In a word, if you want a better life, you should start by improving your willpower.
A few insightful words from Kelly McGonigal in an interview on the TED blog:
One of the big lessons from the science of willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences.
People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.
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If we tell you some of this wisdom had been discovered 24 centuries ago, what would you say? To find out more about the Stoic principle of Dichotomy of Control, read this.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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