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Boosting Your Willpower and Self-Control

At times we may feel we have less self-control than we’d like. We give in to the temptation to stay in bed when we need to get up, or check our email or social media pages more often than we should. Experts define willpower or self-control as the ability to resist urges like these so that we can gain a greater benefit in the future.

Willpower is essential to success in an age when distractions are all around us. If you don’t have as much self-control as you’d like, you can take steps to develop more.

Willpower is like a muscle that “becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened” with practice over time, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney say in their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

In this article you’ll find tips adapted from their book on how to develop more self-control.

The importance of willpower and self-control

You may think of “willpower” mainly in terms of challenges like losing weight or limiting your alcohol consumption, but it also helps in many other areas. People with good self-control have more success at work and in school. They have stronger relationships and get along better with others. They are healthier and live longer. Willpower can ease stress by removing difficulties that result from an inability to resist common temptations.

At the same time, a lack of self-control contributes to many common problems, including compulsive spending, procrastination at work, and getting too little exercise. However, you can take some relatively simple steps to boost your willpower.

What depletes willpower?

Building self-control begins with understanding that you only have so much willpower. You draw on your limited reserve of self-control for all of your tasks that require it, whether they involve sticking to a household budget or finishing a project at work.

Research has shown that after people exert self-control, their capacity to meet another challenge is reduced until some of that energy is restored. Almost anything that requires you to make an extra effort to stay in control or to resist temptation diminishes your willpower, including:

  • hunger
  • fatigue
  • chronic pain
  • sexual urges
  • mental or physical stress
  • distractions (including both digital distractions such as email and texts and offline distractions such as noise or a cluttered workspace.)

All of these deplete your willpower because you need to tune them out in order to do your best. You are forced to do two things at once—ignore a signal (such as hunger or fatigue) and focus on a task (such as making dinner or writing a report).

Ways to strengthen willpower and self-control

Strengthening your willpower gives you a greater ability to defer gratification—to pass up a short-term pleasure to achieve a long-term goal.

The keys to gaining more self-control are setting realistic goals and monitoring your progress to keep you on track toward meeting them. Here are some tips adapted from Willpower:

Know your limits. On any given day, you may need willpower for anything from getting out of bed to controlling your temper in a traffic jam. Try to avoid taking on a difficult challenge when your willpower is already stretched to its limit.

Conserve your willpower. Don’t waste your self-control by surrounding yourself with distractions. Save your willpower for the times when it matters most. If you’ll need a lot of self-control to finish a big project at work on a tight deadline, turn off your phone, close out your email, and remove clutter from your workspace to avoid distraction.

Start by building self-control in small ways. Work on boosting your willpower with an easy task you know you can accomplish before you take on a bigger one. You might make an effort to sit or stand up straight for a few days instead of slouching. One study found that people who watched their posture for a week performed better on self-control tasks afterward. Or try doing tasks you normally do with your right hand (such as opening doors or brushing your teeth) with your left hand if you’re right-handed, and vice versa.

Set realistic goals. Sky-high goals strain your willpower, especially if you try to reach them in too short a period of time. “Losing 5 or 10 percent of your weight is a realistic goal, but beyond that it becomes difficult to overcome the body’s natural propensities,” Baumeister and Tierney say.

Monitor your progress. Take advantage of apps and other software that help you track your progress toward meeting your goals. Try RescueTime, which shows how you spend your time online. Or download a budgeting app to help you track your spending. Weigh yourself daily if you’re trying to lose weight, Baumeister and Tierney recommend.

Plan for times when you’ll need a lot of self-control. Use relatively calm times to develop a strategy for more challenging days. Try breaking an unhealthy habit like smoking at a time when you’re under less pressure than usual, such as when you’re on vacation. Make healthy changes in your eating, sleeping, or exercise routines during low-stress times.

Be careful about making decisions when your willpower is low. You’re more likely to make mistakes when your self-control is depleted, research has shown. To reduce the risk of buying things you don’t want or need, avoid shopping for food when you’re hungry or for big-ticket items when you’re tired.

Change routines that test your self-control. Take a different route to work if walking by a doughnut shop is too tempting. Don’t keep sugary or salty snacks at home; save buying them for special occasions instead. If possible, avoid scheduling a meeting with difficult customers or clients at times when you’re likely to be hungry or tired.

Watch for signs that your willpower is getting low. There are no obvious signs that your self-control is fading, Baumeister and Tierney say, so look for subtle clues: Do things seem to bother you more than they should? Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things? If so, find ways to replenish your willpower, such as by taking a nap if you’re feeling overtired.

This article is based on the LifeWorks podcast “Willpower,” featuring Dr. Roy Baumeister, and on research from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

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