In this article I’ll help you a develop a better understanding of what willpower actually looks like.
I’ll also give you three simple strategies to stop you from depleting your willpower and help you deal with temptation.
The science behind willpower
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines willpower as the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptation so one can meet your long-term goals.
The APA also describes it as:
The conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self; the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
In plain English, it’s your ability to delete Tinder/Grindr from your phone and use the extra ninety minutes you’ve gained today to fill out your tax return instead.
This ability to self-regulate is a vital life skill.
In a classic sixties Stanford experiment, pre-school children were given the option of either eating one marshmallow immediately, or waiting a couple of minutes and receiving an extra one.
When researchers followed up with those same kids forty years later, those who’d shown greater constraint by not eating the marshmallow had been significantly more successful in life by a number of standards than those who hadn’t.
In other words, your ability to self-regulate shows at an early age and has a significant impact on the course your life takes.
If you want a good laugh and watch a repeat of this epic battle of the mini-self versus the mini-self, take a look at this modern take on the marshmallow experiment.
Next time you want to shut down that toddler in the seat next to you, simply dangle a marshmallow in front of its face and tell it not to eat it.
A limited resource
The cliché that willpower is a muscle which gets fatigued when overused definitely holds up.
Every day, the whole day, you exert willpower in one way or another.
Plenty of studies have shown that the more self-regulation you practised this morning by denying yourself that bacon and egg sandwich or by being two-faced to Suzanne from accounts, the more likely it is you’ll lose your rag with your partner tonight when he suggests you do the dishes for once.
I’m paraphrasing some of those studies.
Indeed, there’s a strong scientific case for willpower depletion, or ego depletion, as some experts call it.
There’s simply not enough of it to go round.
Of course your willpower is never really entirely depleted, no matter how much of a stinker your day’s been.
And like any other muscle, it can be trained and strengthened.
So while depleting it may not seem like a sensible option in the short term, there’s plenty of evidence that regularly showing self-constraint increases your overall willpower.
Below are three easy strategies which have proven extremely effective for clients in my practice as an online life coach.
1) Avoid temptation
Some of us seem to be have a knack of avoiding temptation naturally, but most of us seem to be total masochists when it comes to putting our self-regulatory powers to the test.
But as Benjamin Hardy says:
If your external environment doesn’t support your goals, you’re simply not going to achieve them.
In other words, don’t put the cat among the pigeons.
Speaking of temptation, studies show that a brain in reward-seeking mode gets flooded with dopamine, the world’s favourite feel-good neurotransmitter.
That same neurotransmitter that gets you hooked on internet smut, Amazon and Instagram likes.
Once your brain flies high on dopamine, the appeal of instant gratification is amplified, making it much more likely you’ll take risks and forcing you to dig far deeper into your limited well of willpower.
2) Apply the ‘if… then…’ strategy
There’s a technique in psychology called implementation intention.
In simple terms it means coming up with a specific plan for carrying out your goal, and for addressing any possible obstacles you can think may be coming down the track.
So take a close look at your goals or your resolutions for this year.
How specific are they?
What does success look like?
What metrics did you put in place to measure whether you’ve achieved them?
For example, if your goal is to hit the gym three times a week, then plan ahead and write down exactly what time you’ll be going on which day; which route you’ll take to get there; what clothes you’ll be wearing; and even which exercises and in what order.
You can use a variation of this technique if your goal is to stop a certain behaviour.
If you know that putting yourself in a particular situation will make it tempting for you to fall back, then come up with a so-called ‘if… then… ‘ strategy.
For example: “If I go out for a beer on Friday and I feel like having a cigaret, I will not join my friends for a smoke outside”.
In other words, you visualise how you’ll respond in your mind and commit to it.
This simple technique but it allows you to be mentally prepared for anything that might throw you or tempt you to fall back into old behaviours.
By pre-deciding what your response will be in a future scenario situation, you won’t need to rely on your willpower once the situation arises.
3) Practise willingness
Even if you manage to avoid temptation altogether, it’s inevitable that cravings will set in at some point, whether those be physical or emotional.
By applying a concept called willingness, you’ll allow your cravings to come and go while not acting upon them.
As psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer puts it:
“Willingness is about dropping into the struggle, opening up to your cravings, letting them be there, and making peace with them”.
So instead of powering through your cravings, you apply curiosity to them as a way to take off the edges.
Imagine a donut starts smiling at you from across the office and you’re thinking of smiling back at it.
Instead of thinking ‘I’m craving that donut’, say to yourself ‘I’m having the thought that I’m craving that donut’.
Or better even: ‘I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m craving that donut.’
Doing this will put some welcome space between yourself and your thoughts; a space in which choice becomes possible, and where you tell that donut to go and stuff itself.
Call to action
As Tony Robbins says: “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”
So don’t wait until the pain becomes unbearable. Sign up here for more practical tips on how to do life better, win the lottery and never have to work a day in your life again.
In the meantime, stay away from that marshmallow.