Photo Credit: Thao Le Hoang

The Best Strategies to Boost Your Willpower — Backed By Science

Amir Afianian
· 14 min read

The intelligent want self-control; children want candy. — Rumi

The shared attribute of mega-successful people, I’ve come to notice, is doing the right thing on the right time regardless of what emotions (boredom, anxiety, etc.) they have.

They seem to have forged a superpower which helps them to easily cultivate valuable habits. This superpower, I now believe, is willpower and discipline.

Having strong willpower is quite liberating in that it frees you from the grips of your emotions. As the Navy SEAL commander, Jocko Willink puts it:

Discipline equals freedom. — Jocko Willink

I’ve been studying and experimenting the ways to increase my willpower for 5 years now and I can summarize the three followings as the core strategies of increasing willpower:

Consider your willpower as the fuel in a fuel tank. To increase your willpower, you can take one or all of the following ways:

  1. Refuel when you have no willpower left. — By consuming specific foods that I’ll explain.
  2. Enlarge the fuel tank so that you have more reserves of willpower — By doing specific mental exercises that target your pre-frontal cortex (the seat of willpower)
  3. Optimize the fuel consumption, so that you burn less willpower for the same activities — By leveraging psychological principles.
  4. Finally, you can learn to go beyond willpower by adopting strategies that bypass the usage willpower altogether.

But before I tell you how to increase your willpower, you’d better know what depletes it throughout a day.

I. Killers of Willpower

Sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency. — Troilus, in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

If you are to have willpower and self-control, you need to have the mental energy for them. Alas, many activities — and not just acts of self-control — draw from the very same source of energy.

Let’s get to know these vampires first.

1. Resisting Temptations

If you decide to quit smoking or go on a diet, it means that you have to frequently resist temptations and impulses. As science has discovered, resisting temptations is one of the most metabolically expensive activities that your brain does.

Put differently, resisting temptations burns a lot of your willpower fuel.

2. Daily Struggles

Don Baucom, a veteran marital therapist, would come up with an odd recommendation for couples in dispute: Go home from work early!

He had figured that people were using up all their willpower on the job, and later in home, they would fight over trivial issues, the issues that could be readily prevented if they had slightly more reserves of willpower.

Daily Struggles Drain Willpower — lukasbieri at Pixabay

You might presume you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice, etc.

But, you consume the same supply of willpower to deal with wildly different things: frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying coworkers, demanding bosses, all of which lead to an empty fuel tank leaving you vulnerable to temptations and mood swings.

3. Decision Fatigue

Decision making, especially when the outcome carries heavy importance, puts a hefty tax on the reserves of willpower.

The state where you are drained of all the willpower due to making decisions(like when coming back from shopping) is called decision fatigue.

That is why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg always wear the same outfit and all the iconic figures have a specific morning routine: To minimize unimportant decision making.

Minimizing Decision Making By Wearing the Same Outfit — Steve Jobs

4. Premenstrual Cycle (PMS), and Chronic Pain

During premenstrual part of their cycle (PMS) which is called the luteal phase, the female body starts channeling a high amount of its energy to the ovaries and to the related activities. More energy to these regions means less energy for the rest of the body.

That is why in this phase the body craves food and chocolate and other sweets since they provide an instant jolt of energy.

I have terrible PMS, so I just went a little crazy. — Actress Melanie Griffith, explaining why she had filed a divorce only to immediately withdraw it

Similarly, lack of sleep, anxiety, and chronic pain are among the chief killers of willpower. Thus, by keeping the above in check, you are one step ahead in the game.

The lessons so far are:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

Thus, as Roy Baumeister — the author of Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Potential — suggests:

Focus on one project or habit at a time.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, It would be tremendously harder if you also strive to go on a diet and start learning Spanish.

If you constantly fail at your 5-items new year’s resolution, the problem is not you, it’s your list.

All of the above, if taken too far, leads to a condition called ego depletion. This is the condition where you have diminished all your willpower fuel, hence, you lack the ability to regulate their thought, feelings, and actions.

Ready to take your willpower to the next level?


II. What is the fuel of willpower?

The willpower fuel that I kept talking about is glucose, the simple sugar manufactured in the body from all kinds of foods, not just the sweet ones.

The glucose that is provided by digestion, flows through the bloodstream and in addition to acts of willpower and self-control, it is used by muscles, heart, liver, and immune system.

The immune system consumes gobs of glucose when the body is sick, that is why you feel tired and want to sleep during a disease. Your body is mobilizing all the energy to fight that disease.

Now that we know all the hunters of willpower, the question is what should we do about it?

Photo Credit: Riccardo Annandale

III. How to Refuel The Willpower

Never trust a glucose-deprived brain for anything important.

By now, you know that the more willpower fuel you have in a day the more self-control, analytical power, mood control, etc. you will have.

So a wise thing to do is to begin your day with a full tank. How? With breakfast.

We don’t want spike and crush recipe for breakfast. The ideal breakfast is the one that gradually releases the glucose into your bloodstream throughout the day.

Sweets. Sweets are the worst in terms of providing willpower fuel because they provide a quick boost followed by an immediate crash which will leave you craving even more sweets.

But, you can use it with tact: If you’re trying to quit smoking for instance and you are craving to light up one, you can have a sip of coke the boost of which would help you to resist its temptation.

So if you have a test, an important project, a meeting with your boss, don’t take it without enough glucose.

Food With Low Glycemic Index Provide Steady Fuel for Willpower

Gain Steady Willpower Fuel Through Slow-Burn Food

The body converts all sorts of food into glucose but at different rates.

To maintain steady self-control you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index, foods that are converted to glucose on a slower and more steady pace, such as most vegetables, nuts (e.g. peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits such as apples, blueberries, and pears. Also cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other good fats are among the super-fuels for the brain. Now, it’s time for a more lucrative way to increase willpower.


IV. Enlarging The Fuel Tank

The more the body suffers, the more the spirit flowers. — David Blaine

The practices in this part, focus on enlarging the fuel tank of willpower.

1. Willpower Workouts

In a lucky experiment, Baumeister and his colleagues found out that the bothersome advice — “Sit up straight!” — caused the most significant improvement in the willpower of participant in that it required them to override their habit of slouching.

They found that:

The key to enlarging the willpower tank is to regularly engage with activities that are burdonsome or require overriding a simple habit.

Here are some ideas:

  • Start using your non-dominant hand for routine tasks. I’m right handed and from three years ago I started brushing my teeth, holding my spoon, opening doors, etc., with my left hand. (This is also a piece of advice from the book: The willpower instinct)
  • Another training strategy is to change your speech habits, which also require mental effort to modify. For instance, try braking the habit of peppering your discourse with like and you know.
Photo Credit: Thomas Kelley

2. From Strength to More Strength

In laboratory experiments, the main improvements are found in resisting the effects of depletion. Namely, the last acts of self-control when you have exhausted all your willpower reserves.

Have you been to a gym pulling up weights? If so, you probably know that the last reps when your muscles are burning are the ones that are causing the biggest changes.

When I get home from work, totally exhausted, I don’t feel like folding each and single one my clothes. BUT, I know that if I do, it would be like that extra pull up at the gym.

As a rule of thumb, if I don’t feel like doing it, I know that’s what I should do; and in the long run, what happens is that you become comfortable being uncomfortable and that’s the ultimate freedom.

I had desires, I killed them, now I’m the master.

That’s not all, you can take one step further and use mental tactics that help you burn less willpower fuel in the first place.


VII. Strengthening Willpower — Optimizing Fuel Consumption

Mental tactics can help you consume the precious willpower fuel more efficiently or to bypass fuel consumption altogether. These tactics enormously help the sustainability of your resolutions by preventing you from going ego-depleted.

1. Precommitment

I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the least hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed, no living man, or men, shall stop me, only death can prevent me, But death — not even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die! — Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Precommitment is an effective strategy that would prevent you from having to rely on willpower in the first place.

The essence of the strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.

You anticipate that you will face lucrative temptations to stray you from your path; so, you make it impossible — or somehow make it disgraceful, sinful, or unthinkable — to leave the path.

Do you want to prevent yourself from indulging in the social network while you have to focus on your projects? Pre-commit by blocking your access to them.

Do you want to make sure you go to the gym? Pre-commit by promising a friend that you will be at the gym.

Keep precommiting and you will be endowed with something valuable that relieves from having toprecommit or rely on willpower anymore: A HABIT.

2. Put Your Brain on Autopilot — The Power of Priming Effect

When stuck in the rainforest of Africa, his stomach ruined by various infections, his hopes gloomy, Stanley — Africa’s greatest explorer — would wake up every morning and shave his face with cold water.

Why would someone starving to death insist on shaving? It was a typical manifestation of the man’s orderliness, Stanley’s biographer replies.

In addition, Stanely always tried to keep a neat appearance — with clothes, too — and kept all his belongings organized. The creation of order has been an antidote to the destructive capacities of nature all around him.

Orderly habits can actually enhance self-control in the long run by tiggering automatic mental processes that don’t require much energy.

By shaving every day, Stanley could benefit the same subconscious effects of orderliness. He would invoke the spirit of discipline in himself simply through his morning routines.

3. Beyond Self-Control and Discipline

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Navy SEAL commandos have to pass a test called Hell Week which is a continual running, swimming, crawling, and shivering that they must endure on less than five hours’ sleep.

Navy SEAL Hell Week Training — Photo Credit: Stephenguise

At least 75% of them fail and those who pass the test aren’t necessarily the ones with the most muscle. This is how a Navy SEAL commander points out the common quality of the survivors:

“They have the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me?”

This is the key to following this approach:

Focus on lofty thoughts.

When people are asked to reflect either on why they want to do something or on how they want to do something, “Why” questions elevate the mind to higher levels of thinking which drastically enhances their self-control.

So, in the heat of the moment, when you don’t feel like moving even your finger, all you need to do, to bypass the willpower shortage, is to ask yourself WHY?

Assuming you have a strong “why” for what you’re doing, you will be propelled forward by its magic force.

4. Self-monitoring

Devising ways that make self-monitoring easy and inescapable is of the most effective strategies you can implement to conserve your willpower.

Use self-monitoring as a potent willpower tool — photo credit: BalancingLemons

As one of the most prolific novelists in history, Anthony Trollope believed it unnecessary to write for more than three hours a day.

For each of his novels, he would draw up a working schedule, typically planning for 10,000 words a week, and then keep a diary.

“In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labor, so that the deficiency might be supplied. There has been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye,and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”

A blister to my eye. You won’t find anything on psychological literature that would so aptly summarize the impact of self-monitoring.

Those who keep a food diary, loose twice as much weight as those who don’t.

5. Public Commitment

You can take the effects of self-monitoring to its extreme by announcing it publicly.

Public information has more impact than private information. People care more about what other people know about them than about what they know about themselves.

A failure, a slipup, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you’re the only one who knows about it. You can rationalize it or just plain ignore it. But if other people know about it, it’s harder to dismiss.

6. Sacred Discipline

Religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits such as getting drunk, indulging in risky sex, smoking, etc.

They also score much higher in self-control than normal people.

The key to their self-control is discovered by McCullough:

The believers’ self-control come not merely from the fear of God but from the system of values they’ve absorbed, which gives their personal goals an aura of sacredness.

Photo Credit: Nik

You don’t have to be religious to reap the fruits of self-control; whether you are an agnostic or atheist:

Look for you own set of hollowed values.

That hallowed value can be a devout commitment to help others, a burning desire to improve others’ health or preserve the environment for future generations.

The more self-transcendent your value, the more motivation and fuel it will bring you.

7. The Mighty if-then Rules

I explained that making decisions consumes lots of energy and in case of being low on willpower, you will probably be a victim to decision fatigue and ego depletion.

A smart way to prevent this what psychologists all implementation intention.

The idea is to reduce the amount of time and effort you spend controlling your thoughts and directing your behavior.

You make highly specific plans for automatic behavior in certain situations. For instance, you precisely specify what you will do IF you are tempted by a fattening food at a party.

This method takes a form of if-then:

If x happens, I will do y.

So, before you are lured by that delicious chocolate cake at the party, you can prepare yourself with a plan like: If they serve chocolate cakes, I will refuse them all.

Or: If there is a buffet, I will eat only vegetables and lean meat

This approach is surprisingly effective and is included in every willpower book you read (Willpower instinct, The marshmallow test, Willpower by Baumeister, etc.)

The reason it works is that you outsource the mentally-demanding and uncomfortable rejection of the temptations to an automatic process.

8. Never Say Never

The promise not do do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. — Mark Twain

I saved the most cheery technique for the last.

When you are facing a powerful temptation such as giving in to food or to have another cigarette, the most effective way to confront it is to tell yourself I can have this later.

In the mind, it would be a bit like having it now and satisfies your cravings to a great degree.

It takes willpower to turn down a dessert, but according to studies, it’s less stressful on the mind to say Later than Never.

So:

When it comes to food, never say never. When the dessert cart arrives, don’t gaze longingly at forbidden treats. Vow that you will eat all of them sooner or later, but just not tonight.

VII. Conclusion

The benefits of willpower are stark. In the realm of prosperity and personal development, you can sum up a large body of research in the following sentence:

The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.

Even though the role of willpower is vital, you should not utilize it as your main strategy.

Studies about people with the most willpower are thought-provoking.

People with the most self-control spend less time resisting temptations than others. This was puzzling to the researchers until the explanation emerged:

People with the most self-control have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problematic situations.

You will need to cultivate your willpower muscle (enlarging the tank) which in turn gives you tremendous possibilities and will to act.

You will then use this “will” to make habits and then those habits will make your life for you. Take the first step to change, and your life will start to change.

Rule your mind, or it will rule you — Horace



Originally published at livelikepros.com.

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Amir Afianian

Written by

Productivity is My Passion | Programmer | Security Analyst. I Read Obsessively, Experiment Like a Maniac And Write The Best Practices @ https://livelikepros.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.