Scientists have found that willpower is like a muscle. The good news is that you can actually train your willpower and make it become stronger. The downside is that it gets tired when we use it for extended periods of time. That’s why surfing the internet or Facebook becomes even more “irresistible” at the end of a long day, food choices get worse as our willpower muscle weakens and it even explains why dieters are more likely to cheat on their partners.
We need willpower for every conscious choice that involves overriding an immediate inner impulse for some rational reason. This involves resisting the urge to pick up a chocolate bar at the store checkout, keeping our calm when our kids whine (once again) for yet another reason or sitting through a seemingly endless conference call. How can we train our willpower muscles and recharge them after exhaustion? Here are three main tricks found by science that you can put into practise right away.
The first one is to plan and pre-commit to our responses to moments of temptation. Say you are trying to give up buying the aforementioned check-out chocolate bar. The idea is to anticipate the moments when it will be most difficult to keep up your resolution and map out your intended action upfront. So first, be specific about when exactly you are most likely to give in. Is there a specific place? A specific time of the day? Is it when you feel a certain way? Feeling down, stressed or angry, being tired or hungry are the usual suspects. Make a list of all the situations in which you typically give in to the temptation that you want to resist. Then, write down specifically what you want to do instead of this. This is called an Implementation Intention and has been proven by researchers to increase your likelihood of willpower success. Good implementation intentions are positively-stated, clear, short descriptions of what you are going to do and they provide an insight of what is to be avoided (like keep looking at the stacks of “treats” laid out for you). “When I get to the checkout, I will put my groceries on the counter and get my purse ready to pay. I will focus on the person attending me and keep my eyes on the action taking place. If there is a line I can drink some water, calculate what I will have to pay, talk to someone or get on my phone to answer some messages.” This type of statements can be referred to as your “I-will-power” and help you to follow through, even when things get tough.
Don’t think in terms of good and bad, remember your goal instead. There is a huge dilemma in reinforcing ourselves for what we label as “good” behaviour. It has been shown that when we make ourselves feel “virtuous” because of the “goodness” we have demonstrated, we are more likely to give in in the near future: “I’ve been so good, now I deserve a treat”. Researchers have called this the “moral licensing” effect. The problem is that we have observed this fact, but misunderstood the solution. Now, many people believe that they should rather not trust nor reward themselves for any progress and then become overly critical or make themselves feel guilty if they “misbehave”. But here’s the issue: feeling bad just gives us another reason to, yes, you’ve guessed it, give in to our willpower challenges. The trick consists in avoiding labelling our behaviour as good and bad altogether. If you want to stop yelling at your kids, you have a clear long-term goal which is educating your kids with love and compassion. That’s your vision, that’s what you want. In her book “The Willpower Instinct” Kelly McGonigal calls this type of willpower “I-want-power”. Reminding yourself of your long-term goal boosts willpower in the moment, especially if you reframe your progress as a sign of your commitment to reach your goal. It’s not about being good or bad, it’s about being (and feeling!) committed to your long-term goal. Think about all those times you have managed to resist the urge to yell. Think about everything you have already learned about yourself and your kids that helps you today to yell less. Think about how this shows your commitment to your kids and your goal of scream-free parenting. You know it’s hard, and you don’t always succeed, but your acts are based on a clear intention. You really want to be a great parent and are making an effort to achieve it. You’re on your path. Good reinforcement makes you feel good about yourself, indicates the way forward, and leaves some flexible room for improvement and compassion- especially with yourself.
Breathe slower. Willpower being like a muscle leads to the fact that there are actually physical measures like heart rate variability that can indicate a low level of willpower in the moment. This discovery had led researchers to develop a strategy that can help us to physically restore our willpower reserve when we feel drained. It has been shown that breathing at a rate of 4 of 6 breathing cycles (inhale-exhale-pause) per minute restores heart rate variability and therefore our capacity to make willpower-based decisions. So let’s look at our meeting scenario. Imagine you have been sitting there for an hour listening to a never ending stream of seemingly irrelevant facts and figures. You are ready to leave, yearning to interrupt and even tempted to just scream out loud. But you won’t do that (a question of “I-won’t-power” following Kelly McGonigal’s classification). So what you can do instead is practice a type of breathing that prolongs the exhale and includes a small pause after each exhalation. It’s not like deep breathing, but rather an deep exhaling. There is a relaxing quality to the exhale that can help us slow down our breathing rate and by that, boost our willpower muscle, even in tense situations. It’s not a quick fix, as you need to train yourself to be able to do it in the really important scenarios. Also, it will take a couple of minutes to calm down your probably shallow or agitated breathing. But after a while the physical effects kick in. 5 minutes are probably enough to calm you down to 4 to 6 breaths a minute. And here you can stay for as long as the meeting goes.
Not sure, which of these tricks does seem to be most in line with your personal willpower challenges? Just use them all. Take a moment now to write down your implementation intention. Get clear about the end goal you are working towards. Resolve to slow down your breathing the next time a particular temptation hits. All of them together make a great cocktail of willpower vitamins that will help you move forward on your chosen path in those crucial little moments of choice that make the difference between moving forward or giving in.
Still struggling with willpower issues? Not really sure what’s the best approach in your specific case? We’re here for you. Coaching and Positive Psychology have come up with many more scientifically proven interventions to help you achieve your goals and increase your wellbeing.
This article is based on the books “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal and “Willpower” by Baumeister and Tiery. And if you’re interested in Scream-Free Parenting, pick up the book by the same name, written by Hal Runkel.