Boost Your Willpower

Automate decisions. The more decisions you can automate, the more will-power you save for situations where you need it. What decisions do you make every day that you could put on auto-pilot?

Today is the 111th day of 2016. A little over 100 days of this year are past and gone. It’s a good time for you and me to evaluate our progress toward our BIG goals. I confess I haven’t made as much progress as I would like but I continue to look for ways to devote more time to my goal, and I continue to work on the basics, the fundamentals, to become the person who can achieve the goals I set for myself.

One of the fundamentals I am thinking about is willpower. Whatever your goal is, this is one ingredient that I know you’re going to need. Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, who developed the 24 Character Strengths and Virtues, called self-regulation (or willpower) one of the most important strengths to develop. [Miller] Indeed, developing the other strengths often depends on having the ability to practice them when we don’t really want to — in other words, using willpower.

The Willpower “Muscle”

Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in the psychology of willpower, has shown that willpower is like a muscle. As you use it during the day, your willpower “muscle” weakens and becomes depleted. (One of Baumeister’s findings: The level of glucose in your blood determines the amount of willpower you have at a specific time — willpower uses glucose as an energy source. [Holmes] ) The good news is that, like other muscles, willpower can be strengthened through exercise.

Researchers have discovered a number of tasks that use up willpower. Performing these tasks makes it harder to draw on willpower afterwards. But some tasks that might appear to require willpower actually do not deplete it at all. Here are some things you might think would deplete willpower but actually do not: Performing a task that is mentally challenging, such as solving a puzzle; being mentally or physically fatigued; having low self-esteem. None of these require you to use willpower.

But, there are plenty of things you do during the course of the day that weaken the willpower “muscle”.

  • Making decisions. Every time you make a choice, some of your willpower stores are used up. [Achor]
  • Suppressing normal urges, such as saying or doing something inappropriate, like laughing during a serious discussion. [Miller]
  • Trying not to think about something (“Don’t think of a white elephant.”) as when you need to concentrate on a project at work while you have an important personal issue to deal with. [Miller]
  • Having conflicting goals, such as passing up a plate of cookies for a healthier snack. [Achor]

In research trial after trial, performing tasks like these made it more difficult for participants to draw on willpower in a subsequent task. [Achor]

Ways To Replenish Willpower

Is there anything you can do to replenish or strengthen willpower? Two practices have been shown to help: laughter and sugar. Making yourself smile by watching a funny video, reading a joke, or hearing a funny story gives your willpower a boost. And, as Baumeister discovered, willpower is powered by glucose, so drinking a glass of lemonade or sweet tea (with real sugar) has been shown to completely replenish willpower.

Here are some ways to practice the strength of self-regulation in order to strengthen your self-control and will power. It is worth repeating that this is a strength that anyone can improve upon with practice. It is also useful to track your progress in some way, such as through journaling or keeping a daily log of the behavior.

  • Follow a specific, regular exercise program.
  • Self-monitor and maintain your finances
  • Self-monitor and maintain your daily food intake
  • Self-monitor and correct your posture

Ways To Conserve Willpower

In addition to strengthening your willpower, Baumeister’s studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. [Tierney] Anything that uses willpower depletes your store. Don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. Avoid temptations — don’t keep a dish of candy on your desk or visit the all-you-can-eat buffets. Establish habits that eliminate the need to make the same choices over and over. For example, instead of deciding every morning whether or not to exercise, set up regular appointments to work out. [Tierney] If you’re dieting, don’t allow yourself to get too hungry but plan to eat healthy snacks during the day.

Don’t depend on your abilities of self-regulation to remain strong all day. By learning the mechanics of how willpower works, you can conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions. And by taking controlled measures to use it when you don’t want to and to exercise it regularly, you can make this important strength even stronger.

Excelerated Habits™ — automating your best behaviors –is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being, and a life of meaning, purpose and service.

Miller, MAPP, Caroline Adams and Michael B. Frisch. Creating Your Best Life. New York: Sterling, 2009

Jamie Holmes, “How to Learn Self-Control,” Aug. 28, 2011, Jan. 3, 2012

Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010

John Tierney, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?”, Aug. 17, 2011, Jan. 3, 2012

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