The Simple Hack to Give You More Willpower

The experiment was simple: female college students were told not to cry.

Dartmouth psychologists Todd Heatherton and Kathleen Vohs recruited a group of female students — all “chronic dieters” — to watch a tearjerking scene from the movie Terms of Endearment. The experimenters told the first group of women to let their emotions flow freely as they watched. They told the second group to keep their emotions under control.

Here’s a clip from that scene, in which the mother, who is dying of cancer, says goodbye to her two sons, and it’s a weeper:

After the movie, the women were given a second, seemingly unrelated task. They went into an adjoining room where they were asked to rate various ice cream flavors. The women could have as much ice cream as they wanted, in order to complete their ratings.

Unbeknownst to the students, the experimenters had carefully weighed each tub of ice cream before the experiment, then weighed the tubs again afterward. What the experimenters really wanted to know was this: does exercising willpower reduce your self-control?

What they found confirmed their theory. The women who exercised more willpower — keeping their emotions in check while watching the movie — had less willpower when it came to the ice cream. They gobbled it down. The women who used less willpower during the movie — letting themselves cry — had more willpower when rating ice cream. They stuck to their diets.

This is one of the fascinating experiments in Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. “The dieters who suppressed their emotions … had a much harder time suppressing their appetites,” they concluded. “The dieters can resist for a little while, but each act of resistance lowers their willpower.”

To explain this concept more fully, they use one of my favorite analogies: the willpower battery.

Your Willpower Battery: How to Recharge It

Imagine that you have a kind of “willpower battery.” Assuming you got a good night’s sleep, you wake up in the morning with your battery fully-charged. Throughout the day, every decision that involves willpower drains that battery just a bit.

Every time you pass the bowl of candy on the receptionist’s desk, it’s a tiny drain on your willpower battery. Completing that difficult proposal for that impossible client might reduce your battery by 20% or more. Having a heated discussion with your spouse or co-worker might use up half your remaining charge.

When we come home from work or school after a tough day, we describe ourselves as “drained.” Just like a battery. This also explains why not getting a good night’s sleep, or waking up with a hangover, causes a self-defeating spiral: you start the day with a partially-charged battery, and try to get your energy back with junk food and coffee.

Seeing yourself having a willpower battery is a simple mental technique, or “mind hack,” that can help you manage your willpower. You can think of it just like the battery level on your phone, displaying the % WILLPOWER REMAINING for today.

If you’re trying to accomplish any new goal in 2016 — whether it’s losing weight, being more productive, or building a positive habit — you’ll need willpower. Hacking your mind to think of this willpower battery is how you can build up the energy you’ll need to make real change. Here are a few tricks that work.

Optimize your willpower battery usage.

Stay focused on optimizing your willpower battery. If there’s free cake in the break room, the optimal route to your next meeting is away from the break room, even if it means walking an extra three minutes. You’re looking for willpower efficiency, so you can devote chunks of willpower to the things that matter most.

Just think of gadgets. If you’re trying to conserve your laptop’s battery life on a long flight, you’ll reduce the brightness on your screen. If your phone is always losing power halfway through the day, you’ll uninstall battery-hogging apps. Treat your willpower battery the same way: look for how to make it last longer, so you can devote chunks of willpower to the things that matter most.

Just as when your phone goes into “Power Saving” mode, be aware of when your willpower battery is depleted, and try to stop for the day, or at least do a quick charge-up. Eventually, you’ll get better at making your power go further.

Courtesy Wil C. Fry

Eliminate willpower drains.

If you’re trying to lose weight, get all the low-nutrient, high-calorie foods out of the house. Don’t even buy them. If you’re trying to quit drinking or smoking, don’t even go near the bar or smoker’s sidewalk. If you’re trying to be more productive, remove every browser bookmark to Facebook, Reddit, and Buzzfeed. (But not LinkedIn. I’ve got more posts coming.)

You may think of these as “temptations,” but most of us have the false confidence that we can avoid temptations. Seeing them as “willpower drains” is more useful. Willpower drains have a cumulative effect: you can’t avoid the cookies in your closet forever. Eventually, you’ll crack.

I’m a fan of the radio personality Howard Stern, and I used to have a bookmark to Stern’s website, so I could read each day’s show recap. After a while, it felt like “empty calories,” so I removed the bookmark — and like magic, I dropped the habit completely. Typing in the URL manually seemed like so much work!

Eliminate the temptations, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to keep your willpower strong.

Look for battery chargers.

Journalist Charles Duhigg tells the story of an unhealthy habit he developed while working at the New York Times: each afternoon, he would take a snack break and eat cookies. As he began to gain weight from his daily cookie habit, he found himself mystified by his behavior: how could an educated, successful professional be unable to stop eating cookies?

Duhigg began to research the scientific research on habit formation, which eventually resulted in his bestselling book The Power of Habit. He found that what he really wanted was the social experience of chatting with co-workers, which he got by joining them for snacks. He was able to tweak his habit so he still got his mid-day social break, without the calories.

Socializing, for Duhigg, was his willpower charging station. Your willpower chargers may be exercise, or reading a good book over lunch, or listening to music. The best chargers are positive, easy, and free. Build these chargers into your daily routine, or whenever you need a quick willpower boost.

One day, we’ll have software that shows us our current willpower battery level, warns us when we’re getting critically low, and suggests ways to get a recharge. Until then, picture that “willpower battery meter” on the top right of your visual display. It’s a mind hack that works.

Sir John Hargrave is the author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days, now available worldwide.