Check Your Vibes: 5 Ways To Build Your Willpower Muscle

We all remember the infamous marshmallow experiment, in which adorable little kids are placed in front of a marshmallow and told to resist eating it for a set amount of time in order to get a greater reward. The original participants of this experiment had no idea they were actually setting themselves up for a lifetime of “told ya so” from everyone they met, as their success throughout their life was measured by scientists and correlated to whether they the willpower to avoid eating their marshmallow that day.

When I think of willpower, I usually think of shame — I picture all the times I failed myself with moves like eating something terrible for me at 3 a.m., sleeping late, or putting off a major assignment for another whole day because I just couldn’t be bothered. Afterwards, I’d usually keep it a secret and then spend the next few hours plagued by an overdramatized image of myself as a huge loser who sucked at life. Obviously, nobody is a terrible failure just because they ate a cookie when they weren’t supposed to, but in that moment, an inability to control ourselves feels like a vast personal downfall. It can particularly sting when it’s over a small habit, because if we can’t manage that, how will we ever tackle the bigger issues in our lives? That’s the problem with the mindset surrounding willpower — we tend to view it as a morally superior trait that we’re either born with or hopeless at, and that simply isn’t how it works. Psychologist Roy Baumeister, a leader in research on willpower, considers it to be an adaptive quality, and a greater key to success than self-esteem. In a talk at the Happiness & Its Causes convention in Australia last summer, he referred to self-control as a way of changing yourself — more specifically, changing your emotional and thought-based responses to stimuli in order to impact your behavior. Think about that! There are so many things we have no control over in life and within ourselves, but this is one thing we can actually grow and change!

Baumeister describes willpower as a muscle that needs to be built up over a long period. Just like our physical muscles, this takes time, patience and energy preservation. If you’ve never run before in your life, you wouldn’t wake up one morning and attempt a marathon on your very first jog. If you were running a marathon, you wouldn’t bolt all over town as fast as you could just before the race began, because you would want to preserve your energy for the big race. Willpower works in the exact same way. Exercising it is uncomfortable at first and might even feel against our nature, but as time goes on, we slowly realize we’re capable of more than we ever thought possible. Studies have repeatedly found that strong willpower leads to greater career accomplishments, more personal fulfillment, fewer substance abuse problems, and an overall greater sense of success. It also leads to less stress, because as Baumeister puts it, “one of the best ways to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up,” which is what willpower helps you do! It’s kind of like a secret key to happiness — and it’s not something that other, “better” people magically have that you don’t. Keep these five tips in mind to build up your own willpower.

1. Focus on baby steps. Your willpower muscle may not be used to any kind of workout, so it’s best to start with very simple promises to yourself, both to gain practice and to prove to yourself that you can do it, which will build momentum. Early challenges to yourself could be tiny things like committing to taking off all your makeup before bed (I can’t be the only one who sometimes decides I’m too tired to bother) or making a phone call to the bank you’ve been putting off. Keep things simple and don’t take it too seriously, because that can lead to overwhelming yourself with the bigger picture of what you ultimately want to be able to accomplish. Just focus on doing as much of the task in front of you as you can manage. When you can’t keep going anymore, you know you’ve done your best for the day and have built up your muscle a little bigger for the next round.

2. Don’t invent all-or-nothing stakes. For this one, let’s use the example of a healthy eating plan. If you start one Monday morning full of energy and eat healthy up until 3p.m. when you cave and drink a milkshake, it’s so important not to think of your healthy day as “ruined.” We get caught in a purgatory of zero self-control by assuming that the moment we have a slip-up on our path to success means all our prior progress is suddenly negated. It’s important to think of big plans as — for lack of a better way to describe it — more circular. Instead of having to go back to zero to hit the refresh button on your plan (and in this case, start your diet all over), see each moment as a chance to do better than before, but not to start the whole thing over. It doesn’t change the fact that you had some junk food, but that moment is now over, and the salad you ate for lunch before you slipped up was still better than a burger. If you’d instead thought “welp, I screwed up so I guess it’s all over now, I’ll just eat KFC for the rest of the day,” you’d be setting yourself way further back than if you’d just accepted the fact that you’re guaranteed to lose your self-control for a moment now and then and can still succeed despite it.

3. Stop overestimating yourself. In a way, the shame that comes along with our struggles with willpower stem from a belief that we’re more powerful than we actually are and that we’re just too lazy to use that power. I say this totally kindly, but we need to get the hell over ourselves. We’re humans, and we simply do not have control over our brain’s desires 24/7. That’s not the way we’re wired, and this is especially true if we haven’t been consistently working on building our willpower. Hating ourselves for slipping up is longing for mental muscle mass we literally do not have, which is an epic waste of time. Even the most self-controlled person in the world needs to procrastinate or sleep late now and then.

4. Preserve your resources. We only have a set amount of willpower each day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. By the end of our day, we’re usually much more terrible at controlling ourselves than we were in the morning, because our abilities were depleted by the many willpower-reliant decisions we made at work or on our commute. If you can help it, schedule tasks that require self-control at a time of the day or week when you know you’ll have more mental energy to spare. Don’t waste your willpower on stuff that’s not important to you! If you’re running lower on self-control and really need to resist something (like a chocolate bar or flirting with someone you shouldn’t) try to distract yourself with something more healthy you can find to eat/look at/listen to. There are times when it’s not ideal to remove yourself entirely from a situation to avoid temptations, but if your willpower’s been chipped away at all day long and the stakes are high, it might be a good idea.

5. Feel empowered. In some ways, willpower is one of the more egalitarian paths out there to improving your life. Researchers have found that when it comes to success, self-control matters more than intelligence and social class. Lots of the American Dream is a big fat lie, but the fact that we actually can bootstrap our way into greater self-control (and as a result, a happier life) feels like a small way to spite that reality, and that’s pretty damn cool.

[Scientific American]

[Zen Habits]