willpower in action: hacking your willpower, part 3

lacing up shoes

You gave up on being perfect and decided to just start a really simple routine. You stuck with it for a couple of months and low and behold, you’ve noticed that some other parts of work and life are falling in line. What’s going on?

None of us consistently does what we know we should do. It’s part of the human experience. We are drawn to temptation like a moth to a flame. But thankfully, there are practices both scientific and spiritual that can give us a leg up on our fragile condition.

If you are trying to exercise greater willpower and self-control, here are six things you can begin doing right now.

1. Avoid temptation

The absolute simplest way to preserve your willpower is not to use it. Think ahead. What are you likely to do today that will test you? Which conversation will require you to bite your tongue? What delicacy is lurking in the break room? Avoid them.

In the Mischel study done over 40 years ago with children trying to avoid temptation and earn an extra marshmallow, the children who looked away faired better than the children who stared directly at the marshmallows.

2. Trade up your why

Mark Muraven of the University of Albany found that people who tried to resist temptation in order to please others faired poorly compared to people who resisted temptation for their own reasons. If you are going to exert self-control, connect that decision to your own big why.

As well, we are never completely devoid of willpower. We seem to always possess a little reserve. Muraven showed that a reward or an intrinsic motivator can be just the thing to trigger our reserve. Just get to safety FAST!

3. Plan ahead

For better or worse, stuff happens. You try to steer clear of situations that will tax your willpower, but suddenly an ad pops up for that new suit, car, jewelry, or worse. What are you going to do? If you decide in advance, exercising something called ‘implementation intention’, you’ll be more likely to beat it.


“I’m going to start my day with one article online and then I’m going to close my laptop and journal for 10 minutes. If something pops, I WILL NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CLICK ON IT.”

“I will start the meeting with a positive commentary of last week’s performance. If someone brings up something negative, I’ll ask them to first acknowledge something positive.”

“If someone asks me to lunch, I’ll order the grilled salmon and steamed vegetables.”

Whatever it is, make an “if / then” plan so you don’t have to tap your willpower to manage your way through the situation.

4. Mood matters…get happy and talk yourself up.

Roy Baumeister, Muraven, and others found that simply elevating someone’s mood by showing them comedic videos and some surprise gifts helped them overcome some of the willpower depletion typically expected from using self-control.

A couple of times a day, do something that you find fun. Something that will lift your spirit. Just beware that a comedic video on YouTube can lead to a waterfall of wasted time. Decide in advance what you are going to watch, open it in it’s own screen, and then SHUT IT DOWN.

Furthermore, a 2010 study at Stanford revealed that willpower can be depleted more readily if the person believes it can be easily depleted. First, participants were asked about their viewpoints and tested. Those who believed willpower was sustainable were better able to sustain it.

Then participants were given a biased questionnaire which led some to clearly believe it could be exhausted while others were led to believe it couldn’t. Again, depletion fell in line with what the subjects were led to believe. Not everyone buys into this belief, but it may pull you through in a pinch. Talk yourself up, then get away from the temptation!

5. Eat smaller, more frequent meals.

Can your eating schedule affect your behavior with colleagues, your ability to resist an impulsive purchase, or your online browsing habits?  Perhaps.  Studies of humans and animals suggest that flexing your willpower and decision-making ‘muscles’ burns up glucose.

A study in which participants were given sugar-sweetened lemonade recovered their willpower versus subjects given non-sweetened lemonade.  The big caveat, however, is not to just consume sugar.  Rather, manage your blood glucose level by eating smaller more frequent meals.  Simple sugars, especially in concentrated doses can not only boost your blood glucose, they can trigger and insulin response that causes your blood sugar to subsequently plummet…putting you on a sugar (and perhaps willpower) roller coaster.

6. Take one thing at a time.

The most positive finding about willpower research is that it can be strengthened. Like a muscle, it can get stronger with time.  And, regardless of how you strengthen it…developing willpower, whether it be with in your work, your health, your relationships, your faith, your spending patterns, can positively impact all other aspects of your life.

After just two weeks of following a regimen to track food intake, improve mood, and improve posture, research subjects showed they were more resistant to willpower depletion.

Another study by researchers in Sydney, Australia found that people who completed a two-month exercise program also reported smoking less, drinking less alcohol, spending less, and studying more.

So, keep the muscle analogy in mind. Consistently work it a little, and it will get stronger. Work it too much too fast, and you are going to get hurt. Keep this in mind as you approach your goals, your resolutions, and your habits. Start small and build.

Bonus: Pray.

I haven’t found this method high on the list of the American Psychological Association’s recommendations, but I have experienced it’s simple and limitless power myself.

Self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit.   If you are a Christian, perhaps you have prayed for and received self-control to get your heart and mind right, avoid temptation, or lean into a situation requiring love or forgiveness.

It is always there, regardless of our circumstances. Keep this in mind as you weather life’s challenges. (As well, remember that you are loved and forgiven even if your willpower lapses!)

Please comment. What tactics have you used to develop greater self-control? How have you hacked into your own ability to resist temptation?