6 ways to enhance your willpower

Photo credit - Brian Chan via Unsplash

Photo credit – Brian Chan via Unsplash

Having made some new year’s resolutions, do you have the willpower to carry them through? Where do you get that willpower?

What if it was something you could develop?

Kelly McGonigal is a psychology instructor and runs a popular course at Stanford University called “The Science of Will power” She is the author of “The Willpower Instinct”. Her work is very accessible, and has a TED blog post and a TED talk on the topic (listed at the bottom of this post).

Become a willpower scientist
McGonigal takes a scientific perspective on the topic. Her book suggests you do too, to become a “willpower scientist” and be the subject of your own real-world study! Find out what works for you. This post seeks to provide you with a snapshot of her work and some things you can do to enhance your own willpower.

What is willpower?

” …  the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to … ”
~ Kelly McGonigal, Why it’s so dang hard to stick to a resolution, TED Blog 8 January 2014

Background on willpower
Willpower is the product of humans evolving their brains to enact strategies of self-control. This developed the prefrontal cortex part of the brain. Neuroscientists suggest we have one brain but two minds: one focused on impulses and immediate gratification, the other on controlling impulses and deferring gratification in line with longer-term goals. The tussle between the two is the willpower challenge.

How to change your behaviour
McGonigal suggests that understanding ourselves better enables us to develop better self-control.  The end game is to learn how to accept the feelings and reactions that go with wanting something while focusing on outer action of deferring satisfaction or engaging in a different activity.

Changing behaviour – three phases
There are three phases to changing behaviour that are sequential – awareness, acceptance and action.

Awareness, acceptance, action

You need to be aware of your relationship to the behaviour you want to change. Acceptance of this precedes any realistic attempt at taking action to address it.  This means knowing yourself. What are the feelings and reactions that go with the behaviour you want to change?

Looking at your own behaviour in a new way
McGonigal suggests a move away from using guilt and shame as motivation to change behaviour. Instead, take actions to learn how to forgive yourself in handling setbacks. Her solution is self-compassion training. Accept what is going on inside like guilt, anger, anxiety and confusion, before being able to handle a change. In other words, accept what is going on inside first before being able to focus on outer action. Ultimately you learn to handle both concurrently.

Easier said than done? Below are a number of strategies you can use to help develop your ability to exercise self-control.

6 practical ways you can enhance your willpower

  • Know thyself
    • What are the things that support or undermine your goals? Identify these and manage around them. For example, if you snack between work and dinner – arrange to do something else, like go for a walk.
    • Recall your goals and choices of ways to achieve them. Have these decisions made, so you won’t have to make them when you are distracted. Distraction often results in poor choices.
  • Make a plan
    • Choose your activities to be compatible with your goals and other activities eg exercise at  a time that works for you – if dieting, make it easy to eat well – have the right food on hand, prepare meals/healthy snacks for work
    • Make time in your diary/planner – schedule your activities so avoid clashes with predictable interruptions eg for exercise choose a venue close to home or on the way to/from work
    • Get your equipment ready eg put out your gym gear/pack your gym bag, set the alarm clock/reminder, coordinate with an exercise buddy
  • Get enough sleep
    • Sleep deprivation has the same effect on your brain as being mildly intoxicated – which does little for self-control.
    • Sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose – leaving them under-fueled and exhausted. This usually leads to cravings and low self-control.
  • Exercise
    • Research shows that exercise reduces cravings.  “Anything above and beyond the typical sedentary lifestyle will improve your willpower reserve” (McGonigal, 2012, The Willpower Instinct, pp43).
    • Take 5 minutes to move. Do anything – go for a walk, take the dog outside to play, work in the garden.
  • Meditate 
    • Neuroscientists have found that when you meditate your brain not only gets better at it, but it also improves a range of self-control skills like attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness (McGonigal, 2012, pp24).
    • Meditation changes your brain. An analogy for this is weight-lifting. You practise the technique and gradually build your capacity to lift more. This training results in muscles getting better at doing what you ask.  Likewise, through meditation training your brain will get better and faster at processing.
    • Even a daily five-minute breath focus meditation will train your brain in this.

Source: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, 2012, Penguin: New York.

Read more about the work of Kelly McGonigal on why it’s so dang hard to stick to a resolution

Hear about myths associated with willpower in this TED talk:


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