How To Boost Willpower
Willpower is an essential component to success in virtually all facets of life: career, lifestyle choices, even relationships. We all have moments of weakness where we indulge in second helpings or take a vacation from exercise.
Current research shows us that these moments may be predictable, and therefore may be avoidable. By recognizing signs of fatigue in our willpower, we may be strengthen our resolve and stick to the goals that will make us happier in our lives.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney have coauthored the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” compiling evidence that willpower does not fall strictly on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate. The authors posit that willpower is in essence a mental muscle that can be strengthened much like any other muscle.
In fact, Baumeister’s research shows that like other muscles, willpower responds to both diet and exercise!
A strong willpower must be well nourished with plenty of…sugar. Yes, Baumeister shows that when depleted of glucose, the mental muscle of willpower, much like the mental muscle of decision making, fatigues.
One study compares the ability of test subjects to persist at tasks after drinking lemonade. Those subjects who were given lemonade sweetened with sugar showed a significantly higher level of willpower as operationalized through task persistence when compared to subjects receiving lemonade sweetened with artificial sugars.
As we use our willpower throughout the day, we have a gradual depletion of our willpower reserves. If we do not feed our mental muscle what it needs to stay strong, we may succumb to the chocolate cake sitting on the counter.
Glucose reserves are best replenished with those foods that offer us longstanding glucose conversion, rather than the short spikes and severe drops offered by processed sugars. It makes sense that the fuels that best serve our body muscles, best serve our mental muscles as well!
In addition to diet, mental fitness development through exercise can also strengthen willpower. Baumeister was a contributing researcher on a study examining the longitudinal effects of strengthening self regulation (willpower). Participants engaged in one of three self control tasks over the course of two weeks.
The participants either monitored and improved posture, regulated mood, or monitored and recorded eating. “Compared with a no-exercise control group, the participants who performed the self-control exercises showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity as measured by quitting faster on a hand-grip exercise task following a thought-suppression exercise.”
Baumeister explains that participants working on the self regulation exercises had to focus on changing their own responses. In order to do so, internal processes must be considered.
Cognitive processes, feelings, drives and behaviors that may otherwise go unnoticed must be brought into awareness and considered in light of a goal. In other words, participants working on personal insight to change behavior must work towards increasing their Intrapersonal intelligence.
Marketing professor Kathleen Vohs discusses willpower in terms of time. She states, “Time perceptions mediated the effect of initial self-regulation on subsequent self-regulated performance.”
When subjects were required to engage in introspective regulatory tasks (monitoring their own facial features and suppressing laugh responses), their ability to persist at subsequent tasks, the measure of self-regulation, was compromised. While this does not come as a surprise in light of Baumeister’s fatigue theories, a secondary finding adds light to the picture.
Vohs’ subjects were asked to estimate the amount of time that they spent working on the persistence task. Subjects who were “depleted” overestimated the time they spent working on the task. This reinforces the memory studies of Daniel Kahneman relating to experiencing and remembering selves.
Time can become distorted when considered from a memory perspective. While the experiencing and remembering selves may become distorted, reminders can serve as a boost for willpower. Reminders of long term goals and the values they represent while under pressure to succumb to temptations can bolster willpower.
According to a collaboration between Vohs and Baumeister, one of the ways to give willpower a boost is through positive self talk. Subjects who engage in positive self talk during persistence tasks are able to buffer against the depletion or fatigue factor.
Energy that is not taken up through the expression of emotions such as disappointment in performance or frustration can be diverted to sustain the energy for the mental muscle.
When we try to paint the big picture of self-regulation and willpower, there are several factors that tie together. Monitoring and maintaining healthy energy levels will impact the ability to persist at tasks and avoid temptations.
Additionally, building stamina in relation to willpower can be helped by “exercise”, or taking on achievable self-monitoring goals to change behavior.
Self talk is important in multiple ways. First, reminders of the goals and values represented by the behavior associated with willpower can fend off those impulses working against the goal. Also, self-affirmations can help bolster persistence.
The critical factor with all of these inputs is the importance of introspective intelligence. In order to succeed long term in building and sustaining willpower, an individual must develop the ability to perceive changes in physical, cognitive and emotional states that can interfere.
When your blood sugar is low, avoid the bakery. When you are feeling emotionally vulnerable, recognize the weakness and self affirm in order to bolster willpower. Knowing and understanding the self is critical in planning how to maximize your willpower and avoid the pitfalls that compromise our goals.
After all, research shows, the more we engage in working the mental muscle, the stronger it gets. The stronger it gets, the easier it is to be successful and the better we will feel about our selves and our accomplishments.
The better we feel, the more positive self-talk we will use to help stay on track. The more we stay on track, the stronger our mental muscles get.
So set that goal and step into the circle. Build that muscle and feel better about yourself!
Image source: Nanagyei