January 11, 2010

Need More Willpower? Some Tips and Tricks

You've probably read the grim statistics about how the vast majority of New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the failure rate is about 88%. However, the article goes on to explore some research on willpower. And guess what? Turns out there are some handy tricks to it you can learn!

Many of these tips derive from research that suggests that willpower is not an unlimited resource. It's controlled by a part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), that also has other things it has to take care of. Like keeping you focused, handling short-term memory, and solving abstract problems. (Or, in my case: day-dreaming, forgetting my own phone number, and deciding to hand over the remote control to my spouse because I can no longer figure out how to operate a telelvision set.)

But this notion of willpower as a brain function is kinda weird, isn't it? We think of having lots of willpower as a sign of being a "good" or "moral" person. But, to borrow an analogy from the article, willpower is less like a virtue and more like a muscle in the brain. A muscle that can be easily overwhelmed if it's trying to take on too much at once--sort of like your pectoral muscles would be if you tried to bench-press a school bus.

The implications? You are not a "good" person or a "bad" person. You are just skilled or unskilled at using this brain resource to accomplish your goals! (Or, well, if your lack of willpower leads you to throw people out of windows when you're frustrated, rather than just eating too many Oreos, then perhaps you are a bad person. Cut that out.)

Anyway, want to get more skilled at this willpower thing? I thought I'd steal some tips from the WSJ, and toss in a few more I've learned from other helpful bloggers. Let's see if we can get those flagging New Year's Resolutions back on track, shall we?

1. Gonna be busy or preoccupied? Prepare ahead to prevent slips!

If you're in the middle of a challenging task (like say some guy in lab coat forces you to memorize a seven digit number), research suggests you will suck at exercising will power when offered a tempting slice of chocolate cake. With a two digit number? You're much more likely to pick fruit salad.

It helps to know that if you're in the middle of doing taxes, or you're extra-burdened at work, it's not gonna be a great time to wander into the kitchen or stop by the vending machine with the vague idea of getting something to eat. Have healthy stuff near your desk, wait until you can give your brain a break before putting yourself in temptation's path.

Similarly, if you already struggle with motivating yourself to go work out, don't make the go/no go decision in the midst of a hectic morning routine or while responding to a flurry of emails. Get your stuff ready ahead of time, and put yourself on autopilot. You can always bail early if your workout sucks, but don't make it easier to play hooky by asking yourself, "God, do I really have to go to the gym today?" in the midst of overwhelming chaos.

2. Don't Take on Too Many Resolutions at Once.

The willpower researchers say that you're simply going to get overwhelmed if you're trying to exert willpower on too many fronts. Take one or two of your goals and really focus on them. Once you form the habit and these tentative resolutions become fixed routines, then you can start taking on more goals.

3. Don't starve yourself

Whether your resolution has to do with weight loss or not, you're going to have an extra hard time keeping to your goals if you let yourself get too hungry. Researchers found a glass of lemonade with sugar could boost self-control measures, while a glass made with splenda couldn't.

Even more interesting, research subjects performing self-control tasks ended up with significantly lower glucose levels than those who didn't have to exert self-control. What does that mean? Using willpower actually takes real energy!

4. Find Ways to Distract Yourself:

Studies have shown that folks who are better at resisting a temptation are often just better at getting their minds off of it. Some implications: Don't let yourself sit and ruminate about how much you hate going for a run or how much you'd really love a hot fudge sundae. Walk away from trouble spots like bakery counters or vending machines! Have a favorite fantasy or visualization you can turn to for distraction when tempted to take the low road, whether it's winning the lottery or spending a hot night with Hugh Jackman.

5. Strengthen your willpower by exercising it.

Instead of taking on too many goals at once, use your success in one arena to build your willpower in others. According to research, people who exerted willpower in one task (working on their posture) were later better able to exert more self-control in an unrelated task than people who hadn't had their willpower "strengthened" by performing the posture exercises.

To me, this idea of "strengthening the willpower muscle" comes in handy in another way: when I'm wavering between a good choice and and evil one (apple for a snack, or brownie?) the idea that choosing the apple now may strengthen my willpower and help me get my butt to the gym next month? Bonus!

6. Visualize your goals vividly and concretely and frequently.

In that moment of making a decision between, say, driving the car to the post office or walking there; or choosing between the grilled chicken salad and the burger; or deciding whether to return to your novel-in-progress or watch a Seinfeld re-run, there's often a critical period where you could go either way. The problem? Often your long-term goals are vague and abstract ("eat healthy!") and are no match for the lovely and imminent specifics of the short term temptation.

The more you can conjure up an engaging, distracting vision of yourself achieving your goal, and the more you can focus on that than the temporary sacrifice you're making, the more chance you have of staying on track.

So fantasize! Picture yourself running that marathon, accepting that Booker Prize, splashing around in that bikini, or whatever this is all about for you. Really feel how cool it will be when you're further along and enjoying the benefits of your short-term sacrifices.

For those trying to lose weight? You may want to check out the stories and the "before" and "after" pictures of some health and weight loss bloggers you can relate to. Perhaps Pubsgal at Opposite Life, or Quix at Adjusted Reality.

Reading about the incremental progress and victories of other folks can be inspiring! For example, chaobell is running more and more miles as well as conquering her fear of being seen running in public at the track. Quote: "Funny how running a race with four thousand other people also running, not to mention the spectators, will make you not quite care so much that a sauna suit grandma with one-pound hand weights is approaching you from the opposite direction."

In addition, you may want to take Rita's advice over at Surrender Dorothy and write down your cherished long term goals. Do it every day if you can, and keep those goals close to your heart and in the forefront of your mind.

7. Find ways to achieve your goals that are fun, so you don't have to use much willpower.

This sounds obvious, but how many of us don't invest the time or energy in thinking creatively about how to meet our goals? People who hate exercise bikes get on them every day, when they might enjoy a kickball game so much more. Dieters eat the same grim meals over and over, too settled or intimidated to experiment playing around with new recipes or ingredients.

As our pal Mizfit suggests: use "willingness" and you don't need willpower!

For example, Hanlie at FertileHealthy discovered she really didn't like walking all that much, but she loves pilates and aqua-aerobics, two things I would last 20 seconds at.

Is there anything you might be slogging through that you could actually be having some fun doing? Might be worth investing the time to find out.

8. Try some "reverse" impulsivity!

Lyn at Escape from Obesity had a great post about how you can make either a really good or really bad decision in a split-second. Usually we associate taking quick, impulsive actions with bad choices, like eating a second slice of chocolate cake or setting your cheating boyfriend's car on fire. However, you can make good decisions impulsively too!

As Lyn explains: "When the truffles I got as a gift for Christmas were bugging me, I wanted to eat them. But as I was taking one out of the box, I had a split second of clarity and grabbed a huge handful and ran to the kitchen sink, turned on the hot water and held the truffles under the faucet. It felt ridiculous... chocolate oozing all over my hands, making a mess, and then putting dish soap on the remains to get them down the drain... but it feels a lot less ridiculous to do that than to shove them in my face and watch my body grow new fat rolls."

So is exerting willpower hard or easy for you? Got any handy willpower tricks?

[Note: this post also appears over at Blogher's 10x club. And you can check out the forum there for daily challenges and rewards]


  1. Exercise my Willpower???? What ARE they thinking??

    Seriously, these suggestions sound very sensible. Can't hurt to try some.


  2. All great suggestions, Crabby! Especially planning, planning planning! Nike said it best, "Just Do It!"

  3. Good post!
    One suggestion might be to have an exercise/diet buddy. That way, there's a good chance that when your willpower is flagging, your e/d buddy's willpower is still going strong. If you can't get by on your willpower alone, piggyback along on theirs.

  4. Sleep helps. Need more planning. Great suggestions.

    I've done the "reverse" impulsivity a few times like running water over the culprit or shoving cake into the dog-waste container.

  5. I think small, simple goals is key.

    Take it one step,one decision at a time. Those good choices add up quickly!

  6. Following these suggestions over time can lead to the development of really good habits. Once good habits are established, the whole willpower thing isn't so much of an issue.

  7. Good suggestions - I especially like the idea of fantasizing (or visualizing) yourself achieving a goal. I'm going to start "seeing" myself at the 5K finish line.

  8. I wish you could post a video on how to increase your willpower muscle!


  9. These are all such good suggestions and completely do-able! I've especially been working on creating more distrac

  10. Really great advice! These are fantastic ideas.

    I definitely eat way more when I have readings to do for class. That's why I try to do my readings at the gym (walking on an incline on the treadmill) so that snacking is not an option!

  11. One of my tricks is to tell myself that I'm "just practicing." For some reason, I find it much easier to "practice" certain good habits than to do the real thing, even though the end result is the same. Go figure.

  12. Love this, and thanks for the linky love! I definitely want to echo the chorus of "sleep matters" - I make WAY better decisions when I'm not tired. Being prepared too. When I have a yummy healthy lunch I'm looking forward to, it's easy for me to dodge the donuts in the break room. Also, teaching myself how to enjoy treats responsibly - a serving of pretzels or ONE truffle and I'm sufficiently satisfied. Knowing that I can have one any time I want makes it ok to say no to them most of the time. If that makes any sense.

  13. Yes, I need more willpower.

    Putting as much as possible on autopilot helps me the most.

    I will work on implementing more of your suggestions.

  14. I love Lyn's story. That's such a great moment. For me, it helps to get busy doing something else. If I'm bored, tempting thoughts (like: Though shalt eat that caramel...then the box) haunt me bigtime.

  15. One thing that I do to test my willpower is if I want a cookie or some chips. I will go to the kitchen take the cookie eat one bite and leave it on the counter and go back to doing what I was doing. If I want more I'll take another bite & go back again. Doing this makes me feel like a pig because I keep going back into the kitchen. I eat less this way!


  16. I like the concept of being *skilled or unskilled at using this brain resource...* Still, I think I need to make an appointment with my prefrontal cortex about the focus thing...

    Thanks for the good tips and resources.

  17. I have a long-term goal in mind so it does get easier to get at the exercising every day. I also allow myself one day off a week and find that I don't always take it.

  18. What a great post! There is so much in there!!! I do a lot of them BUT I also have a lot of willpower or willingness power when it comes to eating right & exercise & it took me some years to get there as I have been at it a long time. I know what I want to see, I know what I have worked for & I just do not want to ruin all that hard work!

    BUT, yes, I plan, I walk away, I give myself that 10 minutes to talk to myself before I make a rash decision, I drink some water or flavored water at times if I have to, I portion control, I eat mini meals so I always know I have another small meal coming & more but I am getting too long here.

    Now ask me about real life.. not too good at that! :-)

  19. *raises hand* I too am unable to operate my TV or DVD player thanks to the screwy universal remote. I have to ask my 7-year-old to help me. And he still pronounces it "wemote" Oh the shame!

    And willpower... um, only for things I already want to do!

  20. I agree with Dr. J. A failure to plan is a plan to fail. When it comes to new years resolutions I often think of something I once heard actor Matt Dillon say. He said "Everything should be done in moderation. Even moderation should be done in moderation."

    Check out a similar one that I did.

  21. Awesome post! I definitely needed this today!

  22. It's about planning and listening to your body. You should also get to know the root of your impulses and actions. And of course, take on small things because you might tire yourself out when you're still at the start.

  23. One of my goals is reading my goals daily to make sure that I'm aware or staying conscious of them.

    Okay, now for the serious part of my comment - setting my cheating ex boyfriend's car on fire is a great idea. Too bad those cars he likes so much are notorious for bursting into flame on their own.

  24. I like the idea of exercising the willpower muscle. And like Leah said, I allow myself one junk/dessert/slacking day a week to keep from feeling deprived.

  25. Okay as far as willpower goes, why am I always all-willpower, or no-willpower. One week I am counting the calories in the water, and the next week I am stealing my child's dessert. I need to work on the consistency of my willpower. Great post!

  26. I saw that article and found it very helpful.

    Except I totally disagree with #2. Didn't they do some study about two people remembering a telephone number or something like that? And the one who had to remember the longer number had a harder time resisting a piece of chocolate cake...?

    My strtegy this year is to just dream big and start knocking off as many goals as I can. biggies. I've taken on about 15 New Year's resolutions. AND I WILL ACCOMPLISH THEM ALL, DANGIT.

    ahem. sorry.
    I don't know, I get that people get overwhelmed but isn't there some statistic somewhere that says humans only use something like LESS than 10% of their brainpower? I tend to think that oftentimes we are capable of much MORE than we think possible. And by golly we CAN get out of debt, lose 20 pounds, and learn how to salsa all at the same time.

    But you know, it's hard to argue with that research. I just think there might be more room than we think for being "overwhelmed." Especially if what we're being overwhelmed with is something we really really want...rather than remembering an insignificant set of numbers.

    wow. Guess I'm makin up for lost time over here. ;)

  27. Katieo,

    I bet you could totally tackle a bunch of challenges all at once!

    It's slackers like me who need to take just one or two at a time.

  28. Your post brings to mind the subject of control fatigue which I wrote about last year (http://www.aweightlifted.com/2009/04/maybe-self-control-isnt-all-its-cracked-up-to-be.html). Love Miz' willingness instead of willpower.

  29. Belated thanks for the link love!!! (I'm swamped right now.) And that *thud* you heard yesterday? Was me falling out of my chair at being cited as a positive role model in an article about, of all things, willpower! I definitely agree with that tip, though; reading stories of maintainers continues to keep me inspired and on track with healthy living, whichever direction the scale heads. (The latest "Two Fit Chicks and a Microphone" podcast featured several of my favorites.)

    And thanks for this post, too. I really prefer the idea that willpower is a brain function and can be strengthened.

  30. I'm having trouble just getting up and finding a job. Eventually you get so discouraged you just stop doing even the basic things. This post wasn't ill timed at all, and the part on replacing willpower with willingness was fantastic.

  31. Oh, and Crabby have you don't any posts on smoothies? I'm concerned about whether that's even healthy.

  32. I swear I read this post the day you made it, and the link love just did not register in my brains.

    Much belated thanks!

  33. Nice Post, these are some great tips to help willpower. I will have to give them try. One of the hardest thing I find that need the most will power is when dieting and trying to ignore the wrong foods! thanks for the tips


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