- If you’re looking to consistently achieve your goals, harnessing willpower can be a helpful tool.
- Planning for breaks in routines and stress management can help you use your willpower.
- Identifying what really motivates you can also be helpful in exercising your willpower.
If you are having trouble achieving your goals, you may lack willpower or the ability to regulate your impulses.
Willpower is generally associated with self-control, and people with more self-control get better grades and have fewer substance abuse problems, according to research.
So the more willpower you have, the better you will do in life. But if you feel like you don’t have much willpower, can you increase your willpower to lead a more successful life? It turns out that psychologists haven’t really settled on an answer to this.
Some argue that it is possible to increase self-control through practice, including Roy Baumeister, social psychologist and author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”
But others say there isn’t much conclusive evidence that we can improve our self-control. So what can you do?
Baumeister points out that many people who seem to have great self-control don’t necessarily have more willpower than others: they may just know how to use it more effectively, through tools like intention implementation and stress management.
So the next time you need a strong resolve, here are some tips to keep in mind.
1. Start with small changes
Baumeister says that self-control is like a muscle: “You can exercise it regularly and you get stronger.”
“You may notice, for example, that people who enter the military tend to have much better self-control than they did when they started, because it’s an environment that encourages discipline and self-control,” he says.
But you don’t have to join the army to develop self-control. Many studies in the last few decades have found evidence to suggest that small lifestyle changes can also improve overall self-control. For example:
- A 1999 study by Baumeister found that students who practiced their willpower through posture, mood, and eating exercises also performed better on other self-control tasks.
- A 2015 study showed that subjects who practiced their self-control through handgrip exercises performed better academically, suggesting that their overall willpower had improved.
- Other studies have suggested that even thinking you have unlimited willpower allows you to exercise more self-control.
Suffice it to say that willpower is a more abstract concept and the evidence is mixed. Still, if he wants to give willpower practice a try, Baumeister suggests starting by tackling small changes in your life that require minimal willpower, like making your bed every morning.
2. Get enough sleep and manage stress levels
If you’re stressed, tired, or not feeling your best, you’ll have a harder time making good decisions.
Sleep deprivation, in particular, affects several brain regions, including those that control reward processing. When this part of your brain is affected, you are more likely to make impulsive decisions, which means your self-control is lower.
To make your willpower as strong as possible, try to make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Stress management techniques, including meditation, can also help.
3. Avoid triggers
If you know you’re not good at self-control, try to minimize the number of tough decisions you have to make each day and shape your environment so that it can help you avoid temptation.
This strategy is called situation selection. It doesn’t promote existing willpower as much as it makes willpower less necessary, allowing you to succeed even if you have relatively low self-control.
4. Plan ahead
If you already have a plan in place for what to do in a tempting situation, it will make that situation easier to navigate when it does happen. This technique is called implementation intents.
For example, if you’re trying to start the habit of reading before bed every night, you can make a plan to read on your subway ride home from work if plans come up. That way, when the day finally comes when you have plans for the night, you’ll already know what to do to stay on track and achieve your goals.
These deployment intentions do not change your willpower ability. “But they automatically tell the unconscious mind what to do and what to watch out for so it doesn’t need as much willpower for the control process,” says Baumeister. “It’s like establishing a habit.”
5. Identify what really motivates you
Your ability to pursue your goals also depends on how motivated you are. When you’re properly motivated, you can often get more work done with less effort.
But what does it mean to be properly motivated? There are a couple of different types of motivation, says Michael Inzlicht, a researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
1. Intrinsic motivation it is something you are motivated to do for its own good.
2. Extrinsic motivation it is something you are motivated to do to achieve some external goal.
For example, if you want to become a professional swimmer because you love swimming, you are intrinsically motivated to swim. But if you want to become a professional swimmer to make your parents proud, that’s extrinsic motivation.
People who are intrinsically motivated tend to have more enduring resolve, says Inzlicht. “Finding ways to motivate yourself toward your goals for the right reasons is hard to do, but it’s probably the best advice I could give someone,” she says, adding that:
“If you love a specific goal, you don’t need willpower to achieve it, and you’re less likely to succumb to daily pressures or stressors that would distract you from achieving your goal.”
Whether or not it can directly increase your brain’s capacity for willpower is up for debate.
Regardless, there are many techniques you can implement to improve your apparent self-control. Managing your stress levels, avoiding triggers, and being intentional are all strategies you can use.
“You want to train yourself not necessarily to increase willpower, but to manage it better,” says Baumeister.