There have been certain instances in my life when I know I’ve exercised great willpower: with free fudge, going vegetarian, ex-boyfriends … no thanks. But lately I can’t be within ten feet of temptation without grabbing a greedy handful.
Whether a cookie is beckoning us to jump off the healthy-eating train or a warm bed is coaxing us to nix our morning workout, we’re constantly forced to test and retest our ability to say no. Why do some of us have such a hard time conjuring it up, while others seem to be able to do it without even trying?
I’ve decided there’s no time like the present to learn a little more about the elusive forces behind willpower—and hopefully improve mine in the process.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all about making life-changing promises; in fact, I do it quite frequently. The problem is, all too often, the old me (sans weekly yoga classes, control over my finances, and a cleaner apartment) resurfaces before I have time to even appear to stick with my resolution.
Our ability to accomplish a goal depends on creating an environment that makes it more manageable. Scientists have studied the process for decades and, according to one study in Psychology Today, have found that sticking out a life change is much harder when the process lacks these particular elements.
Trying to squelch every bad habit at the same time just sets us up for failure. Sure, I’d probably be happier with myself if I could kick my massive caffeine consumption, stop partaking in the occasional social smoke, hit the gym every day, and reflect in my journal every night starting now, but it’s pretty unlikely that anyone could make such a sweeping overhaul all at once.
Sense of Urgency
A University of California study found that 350 percent more homeowners sign up for energy programs when they’re told they’ll lose money if they skip it. This means that a little scare tactic goes a long way when it comes to motivation. We’ve got to feel like we have something to lose by not sticking to our resolution—like money, our health, or our friends’ respect.
If I have a friend who’s decided to take up running, I’m always the first to jump on that bandwagon. And that’s a good thing—one study found that cities were able to increase recycling rates by over 30 percent just by telling people that their neighbors recycled.
As anyone with pets or kids can attest, we learn best with rewards. If we want to curtail our happy-hour attendance, we’ve got to start associating not having that 5 p.m. cocktail with another kind of treat—like a massage or a trip to the mall.
Do Certain Types of People Have More Willpower?
Not exactly, but we do seem to have a set amount of it. To prove it, one set of researchers had a group of people watch a very boring video and then asked them to complete a tedious task. The people who didn’t watch the video before performing the task were much more likely to finish it. This means that when we use willpower—say, when trying not to smoke—we have less left over for other things that may usually be easy for us, like saying no to a free donut.
So apparently, we have a budget when it comes to willpower. Is there anything I can do to increase the overall balance in my account, then? Because I’d love to be able to make it to the gym regularly and pay my bills on time.
Willing Ourselves to Improve Our Willpower
Though self-control is a limited resource, studies show that we can strengthen it over time with practice and even through our eating choices.
Enhancing our willpower means testing ourselves on small tasks, one at a time. Over time, this strengthens our resolve for facing bigger challenges—because with each little success, repeating the process gets just a bit easier.
“Of course, drawing on this metaphor that willpower is like a muscle,” says the study in Psychology Today, “we should be able to develop this muscle’s strength.” Subsequent studies have shown that people who practice willpower-driven activities, like hitting the gym every morning for even just two weeks, improve their performance in self-control exercises.
Other research has explored the relationship between our willpower and our blood sugar, or glucose, levels. One University of Florida study asked people to suppress their facial reactions while watching a movie. After doing so, these people’s blood glucose levels dropped significantly. The low-glucose subjects then participated in another willpower challenge—and did far worse on it than those who had fresh reserves. When these participants’ glucose levels were restored with sugary lemonade between tasks, they were able to perform much better.
This means that (as long as we’re not trying to will ourselves to eat less sugar), sipping a sugary drink is a quick fix for waning willpower. Great, but what about those of us whose resolution is actually to, well, stop eating so much sugar? A piece of fruit or a slice of whole-wheat bread can have the same effect.
Some sources claim that only about 20 percent of us actually stick to New Year’s resolutions. But, armed with this scientific information, I’m not going to let that statistic get me down. And hey, just because everyone says we’re supposed to make our resolutions on the first of the year, why limit ourselves to one day? I’m going to start exercising my willpower starting now, one tiny task at a time. So, no thanks, I would not like that cup of coffee.