Many of us think we are severely lacking in willpower.
But you exercise this mental muscle more than you think: Every time you turn down free pizza in favor of your meal-prepped salad, keep your opinion about your friend’s new girlfriend to yourself (especially after a few beers), or resist the urge to scroll through Instagram when you have a freelance project that needs to get done.
That being said, some of us are better than others at exercising self restraint on a consistent basis. Maybe it’s the lure of social media you just can’t resist or the bowl of candy in the office kitchen; We all have moments where our self control is tested. For those of us that have a harder time exercising control, there are some tricks you can have up your sleeve for when you’re in major need of a willpower boost.
While you may not be able to practice these things every single day, if you have a particular reason to exercise the most willpower possible—perhaps you’re trying to tone up for a wedding, training for a marathon that is quickly approaching, or have an impending deadline for the fist draft of a proposal that demands all of your attention—implement these three tricks to bolster your self control and power through.
Do We Have a Limited Amount of Willpower?
When discussing willpower, it’s important not to mention the widely accepted concept that when it comes to self control we have limited reserves. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle, which when used repeatedly gets fatigued. They’ve coined this idea “willpower depletion.” If you subscribe to their belief, it becomes imperative that you tackle those tasks that require the most willpower right off the bat—when your willpower tank is full.
However much research has been published in support of this notion, more recent research has thrown some skepticism into the discourse. Many experts are now claiming this isn’t how it works at all, and that willpower is not something we can deplete.
Regardless which camp you agree with, many of us can agree that after saying no to treats all day in the office, we are more likely to cave and eat a few pieces of chocolate at home. Or that we’re less likely to push through the last mile of our run after work if we’ve dealt with some particularly hard situations (and mentally exhausting individuals) during the day.
So while the jury may still be out on whether willpower depletion is in fact a hard truth, there are a few things you can do throughout your day that may just strengthen your willpower, and your ability to act from a place of self restraint.
Limit Your Exposure to Difficult People
“If you’ve ever willed yourself to be diplomatic with an infuriating colleague or forced a smile through your in-laws’ extended visit, you’ve probably discovered that social interactions often demand self-control. Indeed, research shows that interacting with others and maintaining relationships can deplete willpower,” wrote the American Psychological Association. “In one demonstration of that effect, Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, and her colleagues found that people who were asked to convince a hostile audience that they were likable suffered more willpower depletion than people who were asked to act naturally before the audience.”
So when trying to conserve your willpower reserves, it may be best to avoid conversations with your mother-in-law (who you’re still trying to woo over to Team You) or the colleague who doesn’t quite think you measure up to the rest and is constantly criticizing you.
Plus, a study conducted by Mark Muraven, PhD found that those who felt extrinsically compelled to exert self-control (in order to please others, for example) were more easily depleted than people who were driven by their own internal goals and desires. “When it comes to willpower, those who are in touch with themselves may be better off than their people-pleasing counterparts,” wrote the APA. So stick to interactions that feel authentic to you—and steer clear of the people who take a lot effort to interact with.
Reward Yourself With a Mood Boost After You Utilize Willpower
Muraven also explored the effects of mood on willpower. He found that by lifting the spirits of participants with comedic videos and gifts, he was able to produce a good mood that overshadowed some of the willpower-depletion effects normally seen after exercising self-control.
Yes, we’re telling you to reward yourself for exercising self restraint.
If you’ve successfully navigated a conversation with your boss (and fought the urge to tell the guy the off), there are a few things you can do right in your desk chair for an instant mood boost. Try sitting up straight, making future plans with friends (perhaps texting the group to grab a few beers after work to blow off some steam?), or allowing yourself 10 minutes away from your desk for some active mindfulness (like enjoying a a cup of coffee at a nearby shop or taking a walk around the block).
Don’t have much time on your hands? We got you—there are tons of ways to give yourself a mental boost in one-minute flat, including: grabbing an orange or a complex carb like whole-wheat pasta and sweet potatoes as a snack, watching a funny video on YouTube, or opening up Spotify and listening to some upbeat music.
Hit the Gym—and Push Yourself
Research shows that adhering to a fitness routine, and pushing yourself through tough workouts, may actually help to improve your self regulation over time. Yes, we’re saying you may just be able to create more willpower.
A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that college students who went from not exercising at all to visiting the gym just two to three gym times per week showed a decrease in stress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, an increase in healthy eating and maintenance of household chores, and better spending and study habits.
Sounds like some serious willpower to us.
And it gets better: After two months of regularly exercising, the students performed better on lab tests of self-control.
“This led the researchers to speculate that exercise had a powerful impact on the students’ ‘capacity for self-regulation.’ In laypeople’s terms, pushing through the discomfort associated with exercise — saying ‘yes’ when their bodies and minds were telling them to say ‘no’ — taught the students to stay cool, calm, and collected in the face of difficulty, whether that meant better managing stress, drinking less, or studying more,” reported Science of Us.
A new study published in PLOS ONE re-confirmed the role exercise can play in bolstering our willpower. Researchers compared the performance of 11 professional cyclists and 9 recreational cyclists on something called a “Stroop test,”—which require subjects to quickly and correctly name colors appearing in the text of other colors (for example, the word “red” written in blue text). These tests are often used to test what scientists call inhibitory control, commonly referred to as willpower.
The results? “The professional cyclists — a group that is expert at managing willpower (the entire sport of cycling revolves around making one’s body push through pain when it is screaming “stop!”) — outperformed the recreational cyclists on the Stroop test,” reported Science of Us. “In addition, the professional cyclists also performed better (against a relative baseline) than the recreational cyclists in a hard bike ride following the Stroop test. In the words of the researchers, the professional cyclists showed both ‘stronger inhibitory control than the recreational cyclists’ as well as ‘greater resistance to the effects of mental fatigue.’”
“The two effects go hand in hand, because becoming resistant to mental fatigue bolsters self-control,” said Samuele Marcora, author of the study and director of research at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise.
So push yourself through that final mile—you may just be building up your capacity for willpower while you’re at it.
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