Who doesn’t want stronger willpower? It can be instrumental in learning new skills, help you adapt to a different environment, create new habits, and help kick the old habits that aren’t working for you anymore. In short, it can help you build the necessary qualities to help you get ahead in life. That’s why learning how to increase your willpower is essential to reaching your goals.
But contrary to popular belief, willpower is more than simply forcing yourself to do something. In our last article, we talked about being aware of those marshmallow moments. The unexpected craving for a cupcake when you’re on a diet, or the urge to binge Netflix instead of studying or cleaning. These moments when left unaddressed can create anxiety, fear, and sense of failure if you’re not careful.
Even knowing what willpower is, the idea of it can still feel elusive. Often it’s mistaken for stubbornness or an innate resistance to temptation. But willpower is simple the ability to exert self-control in difficult situations. And that’s something you can build on and improve. When you’re faced with a marshmallow moment, those distractions usually offer you one of two things: avoiding stress or feeling good. Your brain wants it, and sometimes, it needs it. But you want to identify when you genuinely need a rest, and when you might simply be looking for the easy path.
One of the best ways to cultivate and grow your willpower is by making the hard thing an easy habit. When you change your behaviors and mindsets around what you believe you are capable of, it’s much easier to listen to your body and brain to maximize your productive output. Here are six ways you can increase your willpower.
Fix your routines
The first thing to look at is to make sure that you are giving your body and brain all the resources it needs to function properly. Studies show that when you don’t get enough sleep, you crave processed and sugar-laden foods. It’s a lot harder to eat the nutrient rich foods when you can’t stop thinking about a donut. Make sure you create a nighttime routine that helps facilitate healthy sleep. And if you know you’re starting your day off tired, make sure you take steps to make healthy eating easier. Pack a nutritious lunch, avoid walking by your favorite grab-and-go meals, and increase your protein to help keep you fuller, longer.
Another part of your routine is staying hydrated. Your cognitive capabilities decrease significantly when you’re as little as 2% dehydrated. It impacts your memory, your ability to reason, your decision-making skills, and more.
Choosing a healthy morning routine is just as important as your nighttime routine. You set the tone for the day and start with a focus on what’s important. This gives you clarity on what your goals are and helps prompt your brain to stay focused on those outcomes. Take five minutes and assess your state, and then create a plan to help you stay on track. You’ll find that this goes miles in reducing the moments of indecision and will help you gain momentum that carries through your day.
Don’t follow good milestones with bad rewards
Who hasn’t celebrated sticking to their diet by indulging in a cheeseburger? While one meal won’t derail a diet, it’s a mindset you want to be aware of. If you’ve struggled with staying away and have thought of nothing but that cheeseburger, you’re actually rewarding the unhealthy thought patterns, and not the healthy new behavior.
This phenomenon is called moral licensing, in which we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” since we have done something “good”. But before long, the temptation to do the bad thing becomes the driving force, pushing the focus away from your goal, or the good. Doing the good thing becomes a way to achieve the bad thing, and before long you stop doing the good thing and go straight to the bad. It can also make it easier to give in to these thoughts in more private moments.
Instead, make sure that you are aware of the desire to give in to these moments. Try to find healthy alternatives to support your new habits, goals, and mindset. When you find yourself thinking about the cheeseburger, remind yourself of why you don’t want to eat it and what you do that will satisfy the craving right now. Replace the cheeseburger with an equally satisfying alternative. Eventually, you’ll think about the cheeseburger less and find the healthy habits come more naturally.
Meditation and mindfulness training are great exercises to strengthen your willpower. These practices gently train your mind to establish control over itself in a safe and relaxed way. But practicing mindfulness is possible outside of meditation exercises, in your everyday life. You can practice deep breathing exercises at traffic lights or subway stops. Choose the longest line at the grocery store or park as far as you can and walk. Being present and in the moment will help control your impatience and build the self-control muscle that makes doing the hard thing easier over time.
These practices also help reduce stress. Stress often pushes people back into old habits. Part of the reason is how habits are coded in the brain. Once the behavior is a habit, it stops producing the dopamine reward. But if you start the behavioral pattern after ending the habit, the reward is reactivated. Depending on how much stress you’re under, it can be very tempting to go after that dopamine burst. Which is why managing your stress is so important when trying to stay away from old bad habits.
Mindfulness allows the areas of your brain relating to attention and emotional regulation to function more efficiently. This is crucial when it comes to willpower. When your stress levels rise, these areas shut down. It’s harder to focus, which can derail you in terms of reaching your goals. And your emotions might take over, making that donut sound way better than it actually is.
Break down your goals
It can be easy to lose steam when working towards a goal. Particularly one on a long timeframe. Your brain wasn’t designed to power through obstacles with no rewards for long periods of time. Which is why breaking your goal down into small, simple steps is so vital in building your willpower.
Instead of only counting a diet as a success when you lose twenty pounds, celebrate every pound. Even better, add inches, muscle tone, exercise stamina, and healthy meals choices into the mix. Every milestone or win you celebrate, activates your reward center and gives you a new goal to anticipate. This builds momentum, which helps get you to the next step, and the next, and the next. Before you know it, you’ll reach your goal—maybe even surpass it.
And don’t forget to reframe your rewards in ways that further your goals. If you want to diet, buy new clothes when you reach a milestone. If you’re working towards a degree, perhaps ordering business cards or investing in supplies you’ll need for a new job can help keep you focused. Come up with rewards that promote your new habits and behaviors to help keep your brain engaged and entirely focused on your goals.
Don’t say “I won’t”, say “I will”
The language you use while thinking has a huge effect on your actions. Research suggests that positive reinforcement serves better in achieving goals than negative ones. One famous experiment highlights this. It’s known as the White Bear Analogy. Essentially, if someone tells you not to think about a white bear, you won’t be able to stop thinking about a white bear.
In terms of your life, instead of telling yourself what to not think about, create a list of new thoughts. When you think about the white bear, don’t force the thought away, simply think about a black bear instead. If French fries or cheeseburgers are your white bear, think about a new healthy snack you’ve been excited to try or the new outfit you want to buy.
You can’t force yourself not to think about things. But you can replace those thoughts with new ones. And by finding replacements for those thoughts, you will activate other areas of your brain and stimulate the reward centers at the same time. It can become a game and give you new experiences to look forward to. And that’s the best way to stay engaged and motivated.
A little bit of decision making every day is good exercise, but when it becomes your whole day it can deplete your cognitive resources. Decisions require willpower, but they also require attention, focus, and problem-solving. If you do this too much, it can tire your brain out.
This is known as decision fatigue. It’s essentially the term that encapsulates a few things we’ve talked about before. When you’re tired, hungry, stressed, and overwhelmed, decisions are harder. Eating the healthy foods, going for a run, not staying up late to watch a movie, all become harder.
You can offset this fatigue by making as many decisions as you can when you’re in a clear, focused state of mind. Meal prep on a day when you can come up with that week’s menu, buy the groceries, and prepare the ingredients for easy cooking. It’s much easier to go home and cook when you know everything is ready and waiting for you. Schedule your workouts and have your gym bag ready. Set your clothes out either the night before, or even the entire week in advance. Pre-plan your workouts or run routes.
The more you do to help make these smaller decisions easy, the more energy your brain will have to focus on the harder, more complicated tasks.
Willpower is not something you have, it’s something you build. It all comes down to habit. Instead of blaming yourself for failing, you can reframe your mindset, break down your goals, and change your language to ensure better outcomes. Before you know it, you’ll be smashing down goals and your willpower will become stronger with every milestone you reach.