How To Increase Your Willpower
Willpower is easy when you’re having fun.
I never needed anyone to tell me to play video games, explore the internet, or practice soccer tricks. If anything, it was hard to get me to stop. Writing has been the same. Sure, some days I don’t feel like sitting down, like tackling the hard passage that’s next, but as soon as I get going, flow kicks in.
We all gravitate towards different things, but most of us have had our own version of this experience. There’s a big lesson in it we often ignore, mostly due to societal obligations or traditional education: optimize for easy.
If you can find an activity in which talent and interest carry you from being mediocre to above average, you have a new potential career. The timing and specifics of making it financially productive might neither be clear nor work out in the end, but if doing the work comes easy, that’s a huge head start.
To some degree, becoming more skilled supports this growing commitment, but if you start in an area you genuinely dislike, you’ll likely never get that far.
That’s why, generally, I support advice like the following, which comes from Naval Ravikant, the founder of AngelList and a prolific startup investor:
“Discipline is really overrated. Discipline is just you fighting with yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It’s more important to find something that you want to do and that can be productive, as opposed to trying to discipline yourself. Self-discipline is tough. You won’t sustain it. Tiger Woods didn’t become a great golfer through self-discipline.”
As helpful as it is on a macro-level, if you apply it to a small time frame, this advice falls apart. What’s great for your career is terrible for your day-to-day.
Imagine everyone in your office quit showering. Or dressing properly. Luckily, most of our needed if not fun behaviors have become habits by the time we rely on them. That said, barring multi-millionaire status, the road to which is long, most of us will always keep facing the occasional to-do we don’t like.
I don’t believe I can solve your quest for meaningful work in an article. It’s a slow process that depends on you trying things, being consistent, and adjusting as you go. What I can do is show you some of the small ways to reduce friction along the way. To summon discipline when you do need it.
Here are 14 scientific ways to increase your willpower in one minute or less.
1. Use your weak hand to complete everyday tasks
Whichever device you’re reading this on, chances are, you’re using your dominant hand to navigate. The easiest, most impactful thing you can literally do right now to boost your willpower is to switch to your non-dominant hand.
In 2006, leading willpower researcher Roy Baumeister ran an experiment in which people did so-called self-regulation exercises for two weeks. The idea behind them was to use extra willpower in low-risk, low-effort areas of everyday life. But why use your discipline when you don’t need to?
Well, one of Baumeister’s core insights is that willpower functions somewhat like a muscle. This means that using it to exhaustion, then letting it replenish, increases your overall capacity. One way to practice this not just specifically, but across the board, is to use your weak hand to perform small, menial tasks.
Participants of Baumeister’s study had to use their non-preferred hand for tasks such as brushing their teeth, stirring drinks, using a computer mouse, carrying items, eating, and opening doors. When the two weeks were up, they stuck with the control task longer, indicating an increase in willpower.
2. Monitor and correct your language
Another self-regulation exercise in Baumeister’s experiment was to pay attention to and correct one’s own language.
Some participants were told to avoid cursing, others to speak only in complete sentences, use only “yes” and “no” instead of more colloquial variants like “yeah” and “nope,” or to avoid beginning sentences with “I.”
These may sound nonsensical, but their whole point is to require mental effort, which they do. As a result, those people, too, became less prone to ego depletion aka a loss of willpower.
3. Put your body in a slightly altered, physical state
Out of the many ways Spongebob drives Squidward insane, Opposite Day must be my favorite. It’s the underlying principle of all self-regulation exercises: deviate from the norm, break a pattern, change a routine.
Any time you do so requires consciously overriding your default behavior and, thus, according to scientist Heidi Grant Halvorson, strengthens your resolve.
Just thinking about your body’s current position and physical state, there are probably over 50 ways you can do this. If you’re sitting, stand. If you’re standing, walk to another spot. You could relax the muscles in your face, deliberately blink a couple of times, or clench your butt cheeks for a second.
As long as it’s a targeted effort, it works.
4. Shower at least partially cold in the morning
Potential physical benefits aside, a cold shower is probably one of the toughest self-regulation exercises you can tackle. Our fear of cold water is primal and instinctive. It never goes away.
Next to a boost in confidence, I found it easier to summon discipline in other places whenever I beat this fear in the morning. Whether you want to start and end with cold, slowly reduce water temperature, or just rinse cold quickly before you jump out is up to you, but the effect on grit is noticeable.
5. Do one extra rep of your favorite exercise
You know how many pushups you can do. I know you can do one more. Or squats. Or jumping jacks. Once again, the exercise doesn’t matter, exceeding your own perceived limit does.
This is what Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment was about: delaying gratification. Hold on a few seconds longer. Stretch a few inches more. Break a threshold, remove a limiting belief, and build discipline.
That’s why a regular exercise routine improves willpower so much: it makes delaying gratification a repeating pattern in your life.
6. Eat some nuts with omega-3 fatty acids
The Snickers ads were pulled, but Mr. T had a point: “Get some nuts!”
Beaten only by flaxseeds and chia, walnuts have the third-highest share of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve cognitive function. Other nuts, such as pecans, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and even peanuts contain them too, but only in very small quantities. You could snack worse.
7. Meditate for one minute
Another acclaimed willpower researcher, Kelly McGonigal, singled out meditation as a special form of exercise that can improve our self-control:
“Meditation training improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control.”
After as little as eight weeks of “brief daily meditation training,” McGonigal says, more gray matter begins to form in the brain, which is essential to muscle control, sensory perception, memory, speech, and decision making.
I find even a one-minute meditation helps me a lot. Close your eyes, breathe normally, but pay close attention to your nostrils, chest, and heartbeat. You can do this anywhere, anytime, and it’s a beautiful, grounding exercise.
The point is not to stop thinking, which is a common, but false definition of “success” in meditation, but to focus your attention, which breeds discipline.
8. Clench your fist or squeeze a handgrip
Throughout the years, many different variations of Baumeister’s research have been tested. No matter how the experiments differ, the basic premise remains: exercising self-control now leads to more self-control in the future.
A successful study had people pressing a handgrip twice a day. Forming a fist, squeezing it, and holding it for a while is a lightweight version of this exercise.
9. Decatastrophize worst-case scenarios
The Stoics commonly practiced negative visualization. One of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, Albert Ellis, adopted it as decatastrophizing. It’s an exercise in which you answer questions such as:
- “Realistically, what is the worst that could happen?”
- “How likely is it that this actually will happen?”
- “How would I cope if the worst did happen?”
In doing so, you’ll develop a more positive attitude towards your challenges and think about fallbacks for potential mistakes, even non-fatal ones. Creating expectations around bad or simply unforeseen events helps us stay calm when they do manifest and safety precautions make them less likely to even occur.
For example, knowing you’ll crave red wine after dinner, you could remove the bottle from its usual spot in the fridge and put cranberry juice in its place. Decatastrophizing and planning aren’t directly linked to discipline but closely related, as they’ll make it more likely for you to see things through.
10. Make a decision — any decision — in advance
Steve Jobs’s uniform was the black turtleneck, Mark Zuckerberg sports grey t-shirts, and, while he was in office, Barack Obama wore only grey and blue suits. When asked why, the latter said he wanted to “pare down decisions.”
Given our storage of willpower gets depleted throughout the day, there’s a scientific argument for taking decisions off the table in advance. For example, by pre-committing to what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you’ll feel less tempted to choose junk food in the actual moment when you’re hungry.
Your clothes, your route to work, what you’ll do on your commute, these all hand themselves to this tactic as well. Beyond deflecting bad habits, you can use it to cultivate good ones. Blocking time each morning to write one page for your novel would be an example.
Throughout our day, willpower acts like a vending machine: you can only draw on it so many times before it’s empty. Making necessary, but secondary decisions in advance is a way of not running out of soda before lunch.
11. Distract yourself from a temptation
According to some of Baumeister’s newer research, people with lots of willpower, or high trait self-control, as he calls it, are good at avoiding temptation altogether, rather than just resisting it when it happens.
That said, we’re all tempted sometimes, in which case it can help to either distract yourself — for example by walking out of the cafeteria if you feel inclined to buy a donut — or simply postpone giving in to your desire.
“I’ll get the donut after I’ve completed three more to-dos” works, because often, by the time you’re done, the urge will have subsided.
12. Make boring tasks more fun
In an interview Maggie Puniewska did with Marie Hennecke from University of Zurich, the researcher explained her latest findings. One was the concept of task enrichment. Put simply, it means making boring tasks fun.
Without changing the underlying task, such as cleaning your apartment or finishing your workout, you add a positive stimulus which lifts your mood. This could be music, watching TV, calling a friend, even food or a cold drink, depending on the task. It won’t work for all activities, but for some, it helps.
It’s a form of emotional regulation. Instead of dwelling on your misery, you draw good feelings from another source and “allow” the task to be boring.
A variant of this is called temptation bundling. Pioneered by Katherine Milkman, it means coupling something desirable, like listening to an audiobook, with something undesirable that’s good for you, like cycling.
13. Keep thinking about the finish line
Another tactic Hennecke deemed useful was to keep thinking about the completion of a task. Once the finish line is in sight, make sure it stays there!
Any endurance athlete will easily relate to how much extra energy this can release. It’s a bit like a friend standing on the sidelines, yelling: “Come on! You’ve made it this far, you’ll get the last 10% too.” Chances are, you will.
14. Focus on the positive consequences
Out of all the coping mechanisms Hennecke analyzed in her study, focusing on the positive consequences of completing an unpleasant activity was by far the most widely used. People did this in one third of all cases. It makes sense.
When you’re chasing a long-term, external goal that’s only partly in your control, like a fit body, a partner in crime, or a promotion, reminding yourself of why you’re doing it is a strong motivator, given results will take time.
It is here that modern science agrees with a maxim both Friedrich Nietzsche and Viktor Frankl shared decades ago:
“He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
Willpower is easy when you’re having fun. In the long run, Hennecke agrees, we should find tasks — work, hobbies, sports — we like.
“If you frequently do things that you don’t enjoy, it may not be a matter of willpower to get you on task, but rather switching the task completely.”
It’s common sense, but it’s also science. Hennecke remarks:
“Unsurprisingly, people who enjoy their habits tend to stick to them.”
Finding such habits and shaping your life around them is a matter of months and years, but in the meantime, we can learn to more efficiently deal with what we have to do. We can use the strategies we discussed to power through.