In their 2011 annual Stress in America Survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that American’s main obstacle to their ability to make healthy lifestyle choices and positive change in their lives is a lack of willpower. Often linked with self-control or discipline, the APA defines willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” In our culture of microwaves, fast food and next day shipping, it’s no surprise that many see willpower as a challenge. With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifying 1/3 of U.S. adults as obese, I think it is clear that we’re suffering from a willpower epidemic.
Interestingly, most Americans also believe willpower can be learned. That’s good news if only we knew how to learn it. I liked how a 2014 feature on WebMD referred to willpower as a muscle that we can strengthen. Fortunately, research backs the notion that willpower can be developed.
As someone who sometimes struggles to follow through (despite good intentions, high goals, and optimistic expectations), the research is encouraging. I would like to exercise and read more, eat fewer sweets and spend less time browsing Facebook. Willpower is a something I could use more of. How about you?
What does willpower look like?
- Willpower can mean following through or taking action, like going for the morning jog you said you would this weekend.
- Willpower may mean omission, not doing something, like not reaching for your favorite caffeine beverage to get you through the afternoon.
- Willpower also means putting something off or delaying it, like my mother’s wise encouragement to “sleep on it” before making a large purchase.
Why we lack willpower
How do we right the ship, create change in our lives and become peak performers? According to Dr. Daniel Amen, author of Making a Good Brain Great, the answer seems to lie in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. This is the most advanced part of the human brain, responsible for executive functions such as planning, judgment, impulse control and expressing our thoughts. You can see why this is tied to willpower. Based on Dr. Amen research, it appears that a lack of activity in the prefrontal cortex may be what makes it tough for us to follow through.
According to a 2010 meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin, our willpower wanes as it’s expended throughout the day; the muscle gets tired. On days when you expend a lot of willpower to get up early, avoid distractions, resist temptations, eat healthy and make numerous decisions, you’ll likely find it harder to get in a workout after leaving work. Sound familiar? It does to me. So, how can we better develop and manage our willpower resources?
How to strengthen willpower
Diving back into the brain science of willpower, Dr. Amen suggests that goal setting, planning exercises and connecting with our values are ways to balance low activity in the prefrontal cortex.
So, here are 3 tactics to boost willpower and help you do what matters most.
1. Reconnect with your why and deepen your motivation. Take some time to clarify why you want to quit smoking, lose weight, get up earlier, take 10,000 steps a day or spend more time with your family. Ask, “why is this important to me?” “What benefits will I gain from doing it?” This will help you connect your personal values (what matters most to you) with the goal or behavior you aim to master. When you make that connection, your motivation moves from “because the doctor said I should exercise” to “I want to be able to enjoying playing with my grandchildren.” The latter is more congruent with the person you want to be, as opposed to exercising because the doc said you should.
2. Remove temptations from your environment. Due to what we know about willpower muscle fatigue, it would be wise to limit using it up unnecessarily. If you’re trying to eat healthier, but can’t resist scooping out some ice cream before watching Amazing Race, stop buying ice cream. To help you there, make a grocery list and stick with it. Some call this “precommitting;” I call it setting the conditions for success. For example, I don’t unplug my phone first thing in the morning. This keeps me from checking emails and social media and allows me to focus on starting my day off right.
3. Set and achieve goals. Although willpower can run low, it is important to exercise it. One way to do that is to focus on building momentum by setting small daily or weekly goals. Then, you can use an app, behavior chart or calendar to track your progress. Setting and achieving goals will give your willpower some practice and boost your confidence to apply more willpower to other areas of your life.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a willpower researcher at Florida State University, says that with the right combination of motivation to make a change, monitoring our behavior, and willpower, we’ll be more likely to achieve the results we want in our lives. Hopefully, this helps you to understand how willpower works and, most importantly, how to strengthen it. By boosting willpower, we increase our abilities to pursue our potentials.
Question: What is one thing you can do today to strengthen your willpower?
- Book: Making a Good Brain Great by Daniel Amen