A lot of research has been done on willpower but there is one that stands out and that is the chocolate and radish experiment by Dr. Roy Baumeister in 1996. It challenged old misconceptions on willpower and gave birth to the modern conception of it. Dr. Baumeisters’s groundbreaking research on self-control became the dominant theory. *
Definition of willpower in the Collins English Dictionary:
1. The ability to control oneself and determine one’s actions. 2. Firmness of will.
Having a strong willpower and therefore good self-control is a key to success and to succeed with anything we set out to do. You need a good amount of willpower if you try to reach a goal, break a bad habit or to work on personal improvements.
Why do we sometimes struggle with self-control?
Research shows that there is only so much of willpower or self-control that we have in our willpower-storage and we can use it up and exhaust it just like we exhaust our muscles when we use them. Like a muscle that gets tired from exercise, our self-control strength gets sapped by the many decisions, distractions, and stresses we face. But Dr. Baumeister’s good news is that we can train our willpower just like we train our muscles. And strengthening it can benefit so many areas of your life.
A strong willpower makes it easier to control our thoughts and impulses, break bad habits, resist temptation and persist in pursuing what we really want.
Do you sometimes wonder how to improve your willpower?
Here are some tips from scientists and research on the topic.
1. Improve your posture: Train your will power muscles by working on your posture. Dr. Baumeister says that one of the most surprising outcomes of his experiments was that when he instructed University students to simply concentrate on their posture and to straighten up every time they found themselves slouching, this had a great ripple effect. The students were tested on their self-control before and after the fortnight, and researchers found that self-control improved considerably. By overriding their habit of slouching, the students strengthened their willpower and did better at tasks that had nothing to do with posture. You will also do your self-esteem a favour because a better posture also improves our self-worth and self-esteem.
Going to a Yoga or Pilates class will also have a big impact on your posture and your awareness of your posture and therefore will have an impact on your willpower.
2. Be Persistent: Set yourself little challenges like working on a tough to solve puzzle. It could be any kind of puzzle, maybe try Sudoku. You will improve your willpower if you are willing to do things that are quite difficult and even uncomfortable. Knowing that each step we take is teaching the brain and the body how to assert self-control. Research shows that even really small willpower workouts can teach us how to control much bigger and more difficult challenges.
3. Focus on one thing at a time: It is the same with willpower as it is with starting a new healthy habit. Focus on one thing at a time. For example, those who try to quit smoking while also restricting their diet or cutting back on alcohol tend to fail at all three – probably because they have too many simultaneous demands on their willpower. So best to focus on one goal at a time! Researchers have noticed that cravings are especially strong during withdrawal. This might be because the act of resisting cravings depletes one’s willpower.
4. Keep your energy up: We use up energy every time we use our willpower. A good supply of glucose in the blood guarantees a better and stronger willpower. Best to eat healthy slow burning foods and snacks to keep your blood sugar levels up. Regular healthy meals and snacks are best. That way you avoid a blood sugar crash.
5. Look after yourself: Getting plenty of sleep and maintaining good health also helps the brain keep up with the extra demands of exercising willpower. “Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control,” says Dr. Baumeister.
6. Anticipate and plan for your times of low self-control: Now that you know that self-control is a limited resource and that depleting it means less for later, you can do some anticipating and planning. For example, make sure that you are not in the chips and cookies aisle of the grocery store after a long day at work or have any of these temptations around you at home. Also don’t start on your tax return after a frustrating long day. Ben Warren’s tip from “Be-Pure” in Havelock North, New Zealand says: “The key to success is having the right environment. Set yourself up for success with setting up your supportive environment will help you to succeed.”
7. Get a new fitness or diet tracking app: Downloading a tracking app onto your smart phone, I-pod, I-pad or similar device is useful in maintaining self control for healthy eating habits and exercise. It’s very hard to regulate anything without keeping track of it. Record-keeping itself is often a motivator. “If you are trying to start exercising, it’s easy to say yeah I’ll exercise a lot. You don’t feel like doing it but you also don’t want to write down that you didn’t. You do that to make sure problems are recorded and to make sure you perform the behaviour” says Dr. Baumeister. Another simple way of record-keeping is having a personal journal.
Kelly McGonigal, who is a psychologist at Stanford University, has some more tips on willpower in her blog Five Temptations That Boost Your Willpower. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for behaviour change, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
*Roy F Baumeister is one of the world’s most influential psychologists. He received his PhD from Princeton in 1978 and currently is Francis Eppes Eminent Scholar and head of the psychology programme at Florida State University. He has written over 450 scientific publications, and Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength is his latest book.
– Good Health Magazine, New Zealand, issue July 2013