When there’s a will, there’s a way.
We’d all love to think we have complete control of ourselves, but sometimes our willpower seems to conveniently disappear when it comes to things like not finishing the whole pint of ice-cream.
Interestingly, in a well-known 1960s psychology experiment called the “marshmallow experiment,” psychologist Walter Mischel offered four-year-olds the choice between one marshmallow or two — they could receive one instantly, or two if they agreed to wait 15 minutes.
Mischel and fellow researchers then tracked the performance of these children into adulthood, finding that the kids who had the willpower to resist the instant gratification achieved better health, greater academic successes, and lower rates of divorce. Mischel concluded that this self-control provided “a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life.”
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Having strong willpower can benefit individuals in a number of important ways. Here are 7 tips supported by psychology and neuroscience research to help you boost your self-control.
1. Do important things early
Willpower is a limited source. You can’t expect yourself to be able to buckle down and bulldoze through all of your goals and errands without stopping. Roy Baumeister, leading self-control researcher and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, advises to do important things earlier in the day.
He 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.”
2. Keep the temptations away
If you’re trying to eat healthier, don’t stock the pantry with chips and chocolate. If you’re trying to drink less, don’t go to the bar on Friday night. It’s not rocket science — if you strategically keep yourself away from the things that cause you to lose your self-control, you’ll be able to better maintain your willpower.
3. Build up habits to build up willpower
Baumeister compares willpower to muscle — he says if you try and use it too much, it will get tired and give out. On the contrary, by exercising it, it will get stronger over time.
So instead of trying to tirelessly use your self-control right off the bat, it’s important to build up good habits. Once you get into these habits, your willpower will build up along with them.
4. Sit up straight
You may be thinking that forming new positive habits and sticking with them is easier said than done, but these habits don’t have to be anything monumental. In fact, research has found that simply working on posture can produce significant willpower benefits.
As Baumeister writes in his book, “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.”
5. Eat a turkey sandwich
Our store of glucose carries energy to the muscles and brain, and when our glucose levels get low, our willpower weakens. It’s comparable to starting a challenging task on an empty stomach — we’re more likely to succeed if our bodies are properly nourished and energized.
To keep glucose levels high, it’s important to eat regular meals that are packed with good carbohydrates and protein — for instance, a sandwich with lean meat and cheese on whole-grain bread.
6. Get enough shut-eye
This one is an obvious one, but it’s critical to get enough sleep each night. Waking up refreshed and full of energy will translate to a willpower boost throughout the day.
As Baumeister writes, “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”
7. Choose a reward ahead of time
If you head to the kitchen after a workout in search of a little reward, that “little” reward might turn into cookies, ice-cream, chips, you name it. Instead, decide beforehand that you’ll reward yourself with a piece of chocolate after you accomplish your task. You’ll be much more likely to avoid the temptations that cause willpower to crack.