Willpower is the answer to everything — in theory. If you had lots of it, you might exercise more and eat less junk, not to mention work harder, show more patience and make better decisions. There’s hardly an area of life that wouldn’t be more successful if you did more of what you should and less of what you shouldn’t. In fact, research finds that people who best control their impulses are healthier, happier and more successful.
Unfortunately, many of us find that our willpower is weaker than what’s needed to negotiate the daily pitfalls of temptation and barriers to healthy living; fortunately, we can strengthen our self control. In fact, willpower is like a muscle, according to Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University, one of the leading researchers in the field, and the author of the book “Willpower.”
“Like a muscle, it gets tired.” he says. “The capacity to exert self control can become diminished.”
THREE INSTANT WILLPOWER BOOSTERS
These research-based tips can strengthen willpower almost immediately.
WATCH A COMEDY! In one study, people faced with two tests of self-control did better on the second test if they lifted their moods with a short, funny video in between.
GIVE YOURSELF A ‘PREWARD.’ Reward yourself before, not after a difficult task. In one experiment, people who received a small gift ahead of time were more successful at choking down a vinegary “health” drink.
CREATE TIME BOXES. Imposing and meeting artificial deadlines in a study helped people manage time better and also led them to eat healthier and exercise more.
The stronger your mental muscle, the greater your endurance under the strain of temptation and the more powerful your capacity to push away the challenges to healthy living. So, how do you strengthen your willpower? With exercise and practice, just as you would build physical muscle. Researchers at Dartmouth College have identified seven major challenges that sap our self control. You can bolster your powers of resistance and fight these forces of temptation by taking steps to exercise your resolve — call them willpower workouts.
Challenge: Constant come-ons
It’s tough to resist desires — especially for food — when we’re surrounded by reminders to eat, or what researchers call cues. From fresh croissants at the corner bakery to food ads on websites, cues continually stimulate brain mechanisms that promote eating. “We’re influenced even by cues we’re not aware of,” says psychologist Todd Heatherton, a leading researcher at Dartmouth. “You might watch TV and not even pay attention to a food commercial but shortly afterward think you might like a snack.” Most people think they make 15 food-related decisions a day, according to research at Cornell University — but it’s more like 200.
Challenge: Emotional eating
You’re angry, frazzled, upset — and foul states of mind like stress and depression are directly related to all kinds of indulgences, from overeating to overspending. One explanation: Emotional distress has been shown to fire up activity in the brain’s reward circuits, boosting desire. Calming down may take the edge off comfort cravings.
Challenge: Slip-ups that spiral
Ever had one wayward candy bar turn into a day-long binge? You’ve probably experienced what researchers call the “What-the-heck effect.” When a person breaks their diet at lunch, the temptation is to say “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well give in at dinner too, and start fresh tomorrow.” But any lapse is only catastrophic to the extent you allow it to continue.
Challenge: Getting control
To some extent, you have to be aware of what you’re doing to control behavior, but it’s easy to forget the gym or wolf down another doughnut when you’re distracted by a deadline or absorbed in a favorite show. People often give in to temptation without thinking.
Challenge: Following the crowd
Being part of a group makes us do things we wouldn’t do on our own — like eating more when everyone else does. It’s a matter of values. If you're at a once-in-a-lifetime wedding party, maybe it’s okay to indulge and eat the cake. Look at patterns across days and weeks. If you constantly put social rewards ahead of your own goals, you may need to assert yourself more.
Challenge: Fortitude fatigue
Every effort at self control — from not laughing when a friend stubs their toe to being cordial toward a coworker you dislike — takes a toll on limited reserves of willpower, according to studies on “resource depletion” a key idea in recent research. The more depleted you are, the harder it becomes to resist demolishing a jumbo bag of chips when you get home from work — and the easier it is to make in-the-moment excuses to indulge.
Challenge: Cracking a bottle
Drinking loosens self control — obvious, yes, but that doesn’t keep alcohol from being the single-biggest willpower threat. Even non-dieters eat more unhealthy food when they drink.
One reason: Weaknesses tend to gang up. Stress saps self-control resources, making you less self-aware and more prone to follow the crowd to a bar.
Julie Cantrell is owner of Hood River Curves.