In the first post in this series, we discussed the nature of willpower, noting that is a real mental energy.
In the second post, we explored the way in which this mental energy is a finite resource and how it can be depleted through the exercising of self-control and the making of decisions.
Now if willpower is a real, finite energy, the question that naturally arises is this: What can I do to strengthen, conserve, and harness this force to help me reach my full potential? The answer to that question is what we will be diving into today.
How to Strengthen Your Willpower
While there are many ways to conserve your willpower, there’s really just one way to strengthen it.
By working on any goal or habit that exercises your self-control.
Remember when we talked about how willpower is like a muscle, and that just like a muscle, you have to exhaust it in the short-term in order to build its strength in the long-term? When you work to change a habit, you deplete your willpower in the struggle, but over time, the strength of your willpower muscle increases from these exercises, making you better able to take on future tasks.
Your willpower is strengthened not only by tackling big goals, but also by doing anything that gets your brain out of its comfort zone—things like using your left hand instead of your right (if you’re a righty), working on your posture throughout the day, and trying to stop swearing have all been shown to increase the overall stamina of a person’s willpower.
The best part about creating a new habit is that not only does it strengthen your willpower, it also frees up more of your willpower fuel for other things. When a decision becomes a habit, it draws little, if any, willpower from your supply. The more good decisions you can make habitual, the less taxes on your willpower tank you’ll experience throughout the day.
This is why people with stronger self-control actually spend less time resisting desires than those with weaker self-control. By creating good habits, they minimize the number of temptations they’ll be faced with by making as many decisions as automatic as possible.
How to Conserve Your Willpower
Okay, so in order to strengthen your willpower, you need to work towards reaching a goal or changing/creating a habit. But everyone who’s ever tried to do that knows it’s not easy! How do you get enough willpower to strive towards and achieve your aims in the first place?
They key is to consciously conserve this force, keeping it from being frittered away on dumb stuff and saving it for the things that are most important to you. What follows are 20 ways to do that. This is incredibly vital knowledge; the man who learns how to harness this force of greatness is he who reaches his goals, makes better decisions, and progresses farthest in life.
Note: Some of these points are interesting and important topics in and of themselves, not only as they concern willpower, but life in general, and we had so much to say that the first draft of this post grew into a truly epic tome. So a ton was cut out (it’s still long though!), but we will be revisiting many of these points with their own in-depth articles throughout the year (a comprehensive post on goal setting will arrive next week, in fact). In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about the very fascinating studies that back up the efficacy of these techniques, pick up a copy of the book this series has been based on: Willpower: by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.
1. Only work on one goal at a time. If you only take one idea from this post, let it be this: only work on one goal or habit at a time. Because your willpower is a finite resource, when you spend your willpower on one thing, you have less it available for other things. Thus when you try to change multiple habits at the same time, what you’re doing is allocating just one sliver of your willpower pie to each goal. The result is not surprising: failure in most, if not all of them.
Instead, you want to funnel as much of your willpower fuel towards one thing as you can. Changing any habit is like driving an auto up a very steep mountain—the engine on your willpower-mobile needs as much power as possible to get to the top and over the other side without puttering out and sliding back.
2. Make changes during periods of calm. If your willpower is a finite resource, then you don’t want to attempt big goals and habit changes when you’ve got a lot on your plate. These stressors will suck away your willpower, leaving you without enough of it to reach your big goal.
3. Make your goal as clear and specific as possible. While some cynics scoff at those who make New Year’s resolutions, the resolvers get the last laugh; people who make formal New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to reach their goals than those with the same aims and motivation, but who never clearly articulate their aims.
Hoping to reach a goal without clearly defining it is like trying to find a place by simply driving around; you’re not sure exactly where you’re headed and thus fruitlessly burn up your fuel—or willpower.
4. Set things up on autopilot. When I wrote this post about how to stop mindlessly surfing the internet, I recommended implementing firewall software that blocks you from looking at certain sites at set times. Some criticized this approach as insufficiently manly, arguing that I should just work to overcome my mindless surfing through willpower alone. And that would be a fine idea…if I wanted to make that my one big goal for a time. However, that’s way down on my goal list—I’ve got more important things I’m working on for which I need every possible drop of my willpower supply. So maybe someday I’ll get down to making the ability to resist mindless surfing a habit, but in the meantime, I want to minimize any willpower sucks in my life by making that an automatic decision.
5. Don’t make big decisions on an empty stomach. The glucose in your bloodstream is part of what fuels the energy source of willpower, and it comes from any food you eat that contains carbohydrates. Exercising self-control depletes relatively large amounts of this glucose, and when glucose goes down, so does your willpower. No food=no glucose=no willpower=risk aversion and poor decisions.
This is why you should never go into anything important—a meeting, an interview, a test–on an empty stomach. And why you shouldn’t schedule say, a pitch meeting, right before lunch if you want to increase your chances of getting a yes.
If you need your glucose hit right away, eat something sugary, as this will get the glucose into your bloodstream and to your willpower supply quickly. But if you have time, eat high protein, low glycemic foods—the glucose will take an hour to get into your bloodstream, but you’ll avoid a sugar crash and such foods are better for you in general.
By the way, this connection between food, glucose, and willpower is one of the reasons dieting is so difficult. To shed pounds you need to eat less, and to eat less you need willpower, and to get willpower you need to eat. This conundrum explains why willpower has been shown to be more effective for making improvements in areas like school and work rather than one’s waistline; people with high self-control are in fact only slightly better at maintaining a healthy weight (they do exercise more, but this has much less effect on one’s weight than diet does). Willpower experts thus recommend trying to lose weight by making very subtle changes to one’s diet instead of drastic reductions.
6. Make to-do lists. Once you finish a task, your brain largely forgets about it. But unfinished tasks have been shown to stick in your head and jangle around. Your brain hates loose ends and will keep nudging you to do something about them.
The problem with these loose ends camping on your cranium is that they’re subtly eating up your willpower. They’re like so-called “vampire appliances,” appliances that are plugged in all the time and suck up a little bit of electricity even when you’re not actually using them.
To un-plug your vampire to-do’s, you simply need to take the loose ends out of your head and put them down on paper. The classic to-do list can really work wonders for your willpower. Be sure to make your list of to-do’s as specific as possible—as GTD guru David Allen puts it, you need to figure out your next action on something. So don’t write: “Plan trip.” Write: “Search for best airline fare.” And once you cross that off, your new next action would be “Buy tickets.” And so on.
7. Make a precommitment. You’re doing a Paleo-diet and eating only things like meats and veggies. Your friends invite you out to a restaurant, and you think, “That won’t be a problem. I’ll just get a steak.” But when you arrive and sit down, the waiter brings out a basket of warm, freshly baked rolls, and you shout, “Hot damn! This must be what heaven smells like!” And in the blink of an eye, you’ve stuffed two rolls in your mouth.
What happened to you in there? You were so sure you could handle the temptation. But you fell victim to what’s called the “hot-cold empathy gap.” When you’re contemplating a scenario from your easy chair, you underestimate how difficult resisting the temptation will be in the heat of the moment.
To prevent the hot-cold empathy gap, you need to make a “precommitment,” the creating of a contingency plan so that when you’re in the heat of the moment, and decide to give in, the option of giving in isn’t available.
For example, if you’re going to go shopping with someone, but you don’t want to spend any money, don’t bring a credit card, or bring a set amount of cash.
If you’re trying to cut down on your alcohol consumption, keep your house spirits-free.
And if you’re a Paleo guy, tell the waiter as soon as you sit down not to bring over the rolls at all (hopefully you have very understanding, or gluten-allergy-suffering friends).
8. Create routines.
If you have a set schedule for the day and a regular routine, you don’t have to dither about what you should be doing at any given moment. “It’s 10:00 pm—time to start reading for 30 minutes before bed.”
9. Build self-awareness through monitoring.
Self-awareness simply means consciously knowing what you’re doing each day, and it’s tightly linked with self-control.
Most people are pretty good at hiding themselves…from themselves. They have only the vaguest idea of how much time they’ve wasted surfing the internet, how much food they’ve eaten, and what they’ve spent that month. But if you don’t know where you’re at in a certain pursuit, there’s no way you’ll reach your goal; you won’t know what you need to change, how far you’ve come, and how far you have to go.
So look for ways to monitor, gather data, and “quantify” your life. Keep a food diary of what you eat each day. Weigh yourself every morning (while you may have heard weight loss gurus tell you this is a bad idea, studies have shown that those who weigh themselves daily are more successful at shedding the pounds). Use websites like Mint.com to keep track of your finances, and apps that track how you spend your time online. And so on. The more clear reminders you have of both your progress and your backsliding, the more likely it is you’ll stay on track.
10. Set up an accountability system. It’s not only helpful to monitor your own progress, but to have someone else looking over your shoulder as well. Keep yourself accountable by making a bet with a friend, setting an appointment to work out with a buddy, posting your progress publicly on a blog or on Facebook, or using a site like stickK.com.
11. Tackle the tough things first.
Throughout the day, you’re going to be exercising your self-control and making decisions, which will slowly deplete your willpower until eventide. So tackle your most important tasks as soon as you can in the morning, when your willpower tank is full and fresh. When taking a test, do the hardest problems first, and save the easy ones for later. And forget that notion about not going to bed angry with your spouse—nighttime is the worst time for arguments; your willpower is low, your capacity for impulse-control is diminished, and you’re likely to say things you’ll regret. It is absolutely amazing what a good night’s sleep will do—problems that felt all-consuming the night before will seem completely insignificant when you get out of bed. If you and your wife need to have an important discussion, do it in the morning…ideally after you’ve both eaten breakfast.
12. Get enough sleep and take naps. Sleep refreshes your willpower supply. So don’t skimp on getting your zzzz’s at night, and take a nap between one self-control exhausting task and the next.
13. Limit your choices. You already know that having too many choices creates restlessness. But it also saps your willpower as well. As you might remember from last time, your willpower takes the biggest hit when you lock in a decision, but it also gets burned up simply through the process of shopping around and weighing different choices. With all that browsing, you might think you’d end up with the best choice, since you sifted through so many options. But the shopping lowers your willpower, which makes you risk averse and unwilling to make a decision that shuts out other possibilities. Basically, this means that in the pursuit of perfection, you end up with nothing, instead of something that wasn’t flawless, but would have made you happy.
This is why speed daters have better luck finding a partner than those who use online dating sites; drowning in choices, the latter get stuck in perpetual browsing.
Instead of endlessly shopping around, figure out a criteria for what you want, and when you find something that works for you, stick with it– whether it’s a product, a church, or a lady friend.
14. Don’t try to work or make important decisions when you’re sick.
When you’re sick, your immune system uses a bunch of your body’s glucose to fight off the infection. It pulls that glucose from everywhere, including your willpower supply.
15. Distract yourself.
In the first post in this series, we talked about a study done with children who were told they could eat the single marshmallow in front of them, or wait 15 minutes to double their prize. Many of the children were able to hold out for that second marshmallow with a technique even a four-year-old can understand: distracting yourself. They focused on something else other than the marshmallow.
Turns out the old maxim was right: idle hands are the devil’s romper room. This is something I’ve seen over and over in my life—when I’ve got a lot of time to kill, and only the temptation to think about, I give in. But when my life is filled with activity and friends and interests, I’ll forget about whatever it is I’m supposed to be avoiding.
16. Keep yourself and your surroundings tidy and clean. There is a strong connection between external order and the strength of your willpower. In one study, some of the participants were taken into a neat lab, while the others were placed in a messy one. Those in the latter group exhibited less self-control: they ate less healthy snacks, gave up quicker on tasks, and were more likely to take a small amount of money up front, instead of waiting a week to increase the payout.
So if someone ever says, “Why are you making your bed? It’s pointless.” You can now answer: “Because I’m building my willpower, foo!”
17. Surround yourself with those who have similar goals. The people you surround yourself with have a big impact on who you become. Whether it’s smoking, weight, happiness, drinking, even study habits and GPA, research has shown that your group of friends influences your behavior–for better or worse. If you and your friends are all working towards the same things, it’s a lot easier to stick with it. But if you’re the lone man out, always swimming upstream against what all your friends are doing, you’re going to use up more of your willpower, and be more likely to struggle and fail.
18. Keep it out of sight and out of mind. Researchers found that office workers ate 1/3 more candy when the bowl was sitting out in the open than when it was placed in a drawer. Why? Because every decision we make depletes our willpower, and every time the workers passed the bowl, they had to decide not to take a piece, and each decision wore away at their willpower until they eventually gave in. And this is true for a great many things–not just bowls of candy. For example, don’t study in your dorm room if you’re going to have to keep resisting the urge to crawl into your bed and take a nap.
I’ve found the opposite is true as well: in sight, in mind. If you place a book you’ve been meaning to read by the john or a kettlebell by the couch, you’ll be more likely to pick them up and use them.
19. Delay gratification instead of nixing it altogether. Cutting something out of your life entirely increases the desire for it (forbidden fruit!) and increases the degree of binge if you finally give in, while postponing a pleasure both diminishes the strength of the craving and allows you to be satisfied with less when you do indulge. This is why it can be very effective to allow yourself one cheat day a week on your diet where you get to eat whatever you want, and why the Pomodoro Technique (working for 45 minutes straight and then taking a 15 minute break) can help you study more effectively. When you know you have a scheduled break/indulgence coming up, it becomes much easier to stick with a program without feeling overwhelmed by what you can’t do or have at the moment. (Of course this doesn’t work with things you want to go cold turkey on—don’t schedule one day a week where you smoke 5 packs of cigarettes).
20. Have a higher purpose. Having a higher purpose helps conserve your willpower because the structure and path it provides makes many of your decisions, if not automatic, then at least a lot clearer. This is one of the reasons there is a strong correlation between having strong self-control and being religious (this link is also due to the greater monitoring the religious get–both from God and fellow congregants, and the way the requirements of faith give the willpower muscle plenty of exercise through things like prayer, meditation, fasting, service, ect.).
The non-religious can get the same willpower-conserving benefit of living a purpose-driven life; they just have to work harder to create their purpose from within. This is done by eschewing instant gratification for honest-to-goodness ideals, and finding a reason for your goals deeper and less fleeting than the superficial. Do you want to get in shape for the ladies, or to become superhuman? Do you want to do well at your job to make big bucks, or to leave a legacy?
Be sure to listen to our podcast on willpower with Kelly McGonigal:
The Force of Greatness
How Your Willpower is Depleted
How to Strengthen Your Willpower and 20 Ways to Conserve It