Here’s a conundrum; how do we develop the willpower to overcome our lack of willpower?

It’s Sunday afternoon, I have an article to write on willpower, and I just can’t get down to writing the damn thing. It’s not that I don’t want to write it; I actually do – in fact it was me that came up with the idea in the first place. It’s just that I’ve already done a full week’s work, it’s the weekend, it’s sunny and there are a hundred and one things I could and probably should be doing right now other than tapping away at my laptop.

Problem is, I have another busy week looming and I want to get this article in on time. And like I said before, I really do want to write it.

I’m not alone in my dilemma, of course. All over the country, millions of mums, dads, students, dieters, smokers, savers, get fitters, and deadline hitters just like you and I are desperately trying to stick to their plans to get things done; things they know are important or that they really would like to do, but which so often seem to evade even the best of our intentions. There’s just so much to do!…and so much to distract us and tempt us from what we feel we should be doing. If only we had the willpower…

And there’s the rub. Surveys of over 1 million people reveal that out of 24 character strengths they rated themselves on, willpower came last of all, and it’s not just our personal goals that are suffering. We know it’s the same story when we’re at work – the constant battle to stay on track despite the exploding crate of fireworks our inbox has become.

But take heart; research suggests willpower is like a muscle – it can be weak or it can be strong – and with glucose and exercise it can be made stronger.


Food for the brain

In 2010 a team of psychologists at Columbia University reviewed 1,112 parole decisions and discovered a striking pattern; 65% of prisoners who appeared before the judge in the morning received parole, compared with only 10% of those who appeared late in the day. Even more striking, prisoners who were reviewed after the judges had eaten a mid-morning snack or lunch were almost four times more likely to receive parole.

Each assessment and decision, it seems, depleted the judges’ glucose levels and the longer the gap between them getting a brain-boosting hit of glucose and making a parole decision, the less likely they were to make a clear assessment and take the risk of granting parole. Simply put, they had decision fatigue. In fact, anything that taxes the brain depletes our levels of glucose and every act of self-control and resisting temptation runs our store of willpower down until we recharge it by eating.

But while regular, healthy meals can help us think more clearly and stick at tasks for longer, there are other factors at work in the willpower stakes to explain why some of us stick to our plans and regimes and others cave in at the first sight of a cream bun. To come back to the “willpower is a muscle” argument, disciplined people, it seems, first develop willpower by exercising it and then use it to create sound habits and routines that increase effectiveness, reduce temptation, and make monumental acts of will a final resort. They don’t so much use brute strength to triumph over temptation, then, as employ a range of smart strategies to box clever when it raises its ugly head.

Here are eight of those techniques to strengthen your willpower muscle and create greater discipline in your life:

1.    Feed your brain

Glucose is the food of the brain, so key decisions are best made when you have a good store of glucose to draw on, not after you’ve sorely taxed your brain or gone without food for a few hours.

When we’re required to exercise self-control or put our brains to work for long periods of time our bodies seek sweet foods. Quick and tasty options are often what we reach for – biscuits, sugary drinks and so on – but more nutritious and slower-releasing sources of glucose avoid the inevitable come-down and subsequent loss of brain power of an insulin rush.

2.    Prioritise

Much has been made of the virtues of multi-tasking and with smart technology becoming ever smarter and ever more demanding it’s all too easy to end up keeping tabs on way too many time-consuming, stress-inducing issues at once.

Asked how she managed her time so effectively, one elite U.S. Army general said she listed all her top priorities: 1, 2, 3, and so on, and then crossed out everything on the list from No.3 on down.

This is boxing clever, using willpower to focus, thereby reducing and sidestepping the temptation to take on everything that demands our attention

3.    Monthly plans beat day-to-day plans

Students given a choice of working to monthly plans improved their study habits and formed better attitudes to study than students who chose to work solely to a daily plan. Even one year after the research programme had ended, monthly planners were still benefiting from greater willpower and study-stamina, getting better grades than daily planners.

We can quickly become demoralised if we fail to stick to our daily ‘To-do’ list, but a monthly plan, if broken down into smaller units and monitored, remains intact even if we slip up from time to time, and this seems to develop our willpower and self-control.

4.    Set mini-goals & monitor progress

Monthly plans are all well and good but we also need to break those plans down into smaller, bite-sized chunks if we’re to make the best of our efforts to develop willpower.

When getting himself in shape for a punishing physical trial, magician and endurance artist David Blaine sets himself a series of mini-goals on his daily runs, for example aiming to step on every cycle logo in the bike lane he uses as a running track. The idea, as Blaine sees it, is that he’s training his mind to hit mini-goals, which makes meeting bigger goals that much easier and more likely.

Climber Joe Simpson adopted the same strategy when he broke a leg climbing the Siula Grande mountain in 1985. Alone & exhausted, Simpson had to crawl for miles through a crevasse field to reach the safety of his camp. Overwhelmed by the scale of the taskin front of him, he broke the journey down, setting his sights on making it to the next boulder, ridge, or turn in the path, and famously made it back against all the odds.

What Blaine & Simpson recognised is that we have a real need to see progress being made and that this feeds and strengthens our will.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered the same thing when they studied 12,000 diary entries of 238 project team members to try and identify what motivated them to do their work. The findings were clear; diarists accorded ‘Best Day’ status to days when they felt they’d made headway, and ‘Worst Day’ status to days when they’d suffered setbacks. Setting and meeting mini-goals, then, is critical to motivation and maintaining willpower.

5.    Consciously develop willpower

On a similar vein, great benefits can come from consciously applying willpower to even simple things.

Students given the task of noticing when their posture was poor and then standing or sitting up straight, did much better on a range of different self-control tests than students who weren’t monitoring their posture. Analysis of the results and cross-referencing with other willpower tasks highlighted an interesting fact; the students’ willpower wasn’t stronger, as such, but it didn’t deplete so quickly – they’d developed more stamina.

Consciously using our weaker hand to use a computer mouse has the same effect, so our ability to apply and sustain willpower seems to be strengthened by small, conscious, deliberate acts, even if they seem trivial and almost pointless

6.    Slow down

The natural thing to do when we’re faced with competing demands and deadlines is to try and cover as much ground as quickly as we can, but good habits are best cultivated when we’re mindful of what we’re doing. If you want to consciously develop willpower by using your weaker hand, improving the neatness of your writing, or chewing food more thoroughly, do it slowly and deliberately and you’ll have more success.

7.    Adopt the “5-minute challenge” strategy

Nice and simple, this one; practise sticking at a thing for 5 minutes without breaking off and doing something else and you’ll find you get into the groove with it and maybe even see it through to completion without getting distracted by something else.

8.    Take away the choice

You have a pile of work to do – what comes first? Often, whatever shouts loudest or seems most appealing. The smart approach, though, is to set your priorities, set your mini-goals and, like David Blaine stepping on the cycle path logos, work through the tasks that come along one by one, irrespective of how loud they shout and how much they appeal to you. That’s willpower!

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