4 Science-Backed Hacks to Strengthen Your Self-Control
Self-improvement often requires willpower, a word the dictionary defines as “energetic determination,” but in modern times has come to mean “the ability not to inhale a donut every time you see one.”
As important as willpower is for establishing good health habits, Americans know little about it.
Acquiring willpower is not something that is taught in public schools or discussed in many homes, and – outside of sports – it is seldom a theme in popular culture. Like annuities or kale, willpower is a thing that we know we should have more of, but don’t.
So what happens? We make New Year’s Resolutions and break them. We work out to get the perfect body, but end up wearing a huge T-shirt to the pool. We try to make it to lunch without drinking soda and fail. Beer? Five, please.
Then we blame ourselves for being failures, but the truth is we’re not failures. We’re willpower amateurs in a world of professionally-packaged temptation. It’s us, with zero training, against a $15 trillion economy that gets better at selling us things and capturing our attention every day.
Want to eat right? Hit the gym regularly? Get a proper amount of sleep? Finish that passion project?
Want to ignore the donut?
You need more willpower. The good news? You can get it. Willpower is something you can study, understand, use and strengthen.
You can, for lack of a better word, trick yourself into better behavior.
The Willpower Workout
In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney disclosed the idea that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened.
The authors argue that the mental equivalent of high-rep, low-weight training can boost willpower. Their method: Start small, then build. Little willpower wins over the course of a day, week, or month can lead to larger gains down the road.
As an example, Baumeister and Tierney cite performance artist David Blaine. When he trains for his strange public feats —such as spending 64 hours inside a giant ice cube—he does so by practicing small acts of willpower, such as not drinking alcohol. “Getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn’t be able to do,’’ Blaine said. “It’s not just practicing the specific thing."
If your goal is to diet and lose weight, you can build your willpower by doing seemingly non-related things – like taking a walk every day, or cleaning your home every night.
If you’re Blaine, maybe you shave your creepy facial hair every day. Whatever works for you.
4 Proven Willpower Hacks
- POSTPONEMENT OF DESIRE - You can, for lack of a better word, trick yourself into better behavior. Nicole Mead of the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics and her colleagues say that postponing consumption of an unhealthy snack to an unspecified future time reduces snack intake. Mead believes that reducing desire, rather than strengthening willpower, is an effective strategy for controlling unwanted food-related cravings.
Postponement gives the brain a cooling-off period that leads to more snack no’s than yesses, Mead told WebMD. She adds that the postponement should not be specific. In other words, you shouldn’t say, “I’ll eat that entire Fudgie the Whale Carvel Ice Cream Cake in 30 minutes.” You should say, “I’ll eat the cake at some point later.”
- FLEX YOUR MUSCLES - But there’s another trick you can use if you feel your willpower slipping: Flex your muscles. Iris W. Hung of the National University of Singapore and Aparna A. Labroo of the University of Chicago conducted a study in which participants were who were instructed to tighten their muscles, regardless of which muscles they tightened, demonstrated a greater ability to withstand pain, consume unpleasant medicine, attend to disturbing but essential information and overcome tempting foods.
The researches theorize that the body primes the mind.
- USE MENTAL IMAGERY - Mental imagery, used by athletes worldwide, is another willpower hack. According to Harvard researchers, people who do a good deed or who imagine doing a good deed are better able to perform tasks of physical endurance.
In a strange twist, those who envisioned themselves doing something bad had more endurance than those who envisioned themselves doing something good. In this case, researchers believe that the mind primes the body.
The findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given a dollar and told either to keep it or give it to charity. They were then asked to hold a five-pound weight for as long as they could. Those who donated to charity held the weight for an average of almost 10 seconds longer.
In a second study participants held a weight while writing fictional stories in which they helped another person, harmed another person or did something that had no impact on other people.
Participants who wrote about doing good were significantly stronger than those whose actions didn't benefit anyone. Researchers were surprised to learn that the people who wrote about harming others were even stronger than the participants who envisioned helping someone.
"Whether you're saintly or nefarious, there seems to be power in moral events," researcher Kurt Gray said when the study was published. "People often look at others who do great or evil deeds and think, 'I could never do that' or 'I wouldn't have the strength to do that.' But in fact, this research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts."
So next time you’re jogging and getting tired, picture yourself on a heroic quest to save the princess—or murder her father, the beloved king.
- MODIFY YOUR ENVIRONMENT - You can also trick your brain by modifying your environment. Consumer psychologist Brian Wansink discovered that people eat and drink more out of bigger containers.
In one of his studies people lost weight when they ate off salad plates instead of large dinner plates, kept unhealthy foods out of sight, moved healthier foods to eye-level and ate in the kitchen or dining room instead of in front of the television.
Like your muscles, your willpower can tire out. According to a study co-authored by Baumeister, the more frequently and recently people resisted a desire, the less successful they will be at resisting subsequent desires. He believes people only have so much willpower to use during the day.
How can you tell if your willpower is depleted?
People with low willpower feel things, both physically and emotionally, more intensely. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people with low willpower reported more distress in response to an upsetting film and rated cold water as more painful during a cold-water immersion test.
Making choices isn’t the only way to burn through your willpower. Another culprit: hunger. Another Baumeister study concluded that acts of self-control reduce blood glucose levels and low blood glucose levels predict a lack of self-control. It’s the proverbial vicious cycle.
The good news is that glucose is sugar, which is fuel for the brain, and it can be replenished. Ideally your sugar should come from a healthy source, such as fruits.
Don’t drink a regular soda to avoid eating a cookie.
What you want to do is ward off decision fatigue. McMaster University associate professor of kinesiology Kathleen Martin Ginis says that having to make many decisions can cause a person to cave into temptation.
In his efficiency book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity," David Allen urges busy people who want to be more productive to create folders in their email, and in their file cabinets, into which they can file decisions that don’t need to be made until later.
Allen’s tactic acknowledges that it takes a lot of energy to focus on the present and remain productive. Folders remove the burdens of constant decision-making.
Ginis said making regular plans to exercise at the same time every day also nets positive results.
The Depletion Debate
Not everyone agrees with the Baumeister camp. Many researchers believe that willpower, in fact, can not be depleted. For example, Stanford psychologists found that people who think willpower can be depleted are more likely to be tired when performing a tough task. People who think that willpower cannot be drained easily stay on task longer without losing focus.
So which one are you?
Can you stay focused on one thing for long periods of time? If you can, you’re in the Stanford camp. Soldier on.
Do you find that your energy drains quickly when you’re focusing? If so, you’re in the Baumeister camp. Grab an orange.
The Future of Willpower
It has only been three years since Caltech scientists pinpointed the parts of the brain that regulate willpower—the ventral medial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
“After centuries of debate in social sciences, we are finally making big strides in understanding self-control from watching the brain resist temptation directly," researcher Colin Camerer said on discovery. Camerer hopes his research will lead to better theories on how self-control develops and how it works for various types of temptations.
Until science makes a willpower pill, find hacks that help you will your way past the donut.
- American Psychological Association. What Americans Think of Willpower. 2012.
- Boston University School of Public Health. The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). Updated September 2019.
- Baumeister RF, Bratslavsky E, Muraven M, Tice DM. Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998;74(5):1252-1265. doi:10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1242
- Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI. Delay of gratification in children. Science. 1989;244(4907):933-938. doi:10.1126/science.2658056
- Duckworth AL, Seligman ME. Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychol Sci. 2005;16(12):939-944. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x
- Moffitt TE, Arseneault L, Belsky D, et al. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(7):2693-2698. doi:10.1073/pnas.1010076108
- Muraven M, Collins RL, Nienhaus K. Self-control and alcohol restraint: an initial application of the self-control strength model. Psychol Addict Behav. 2002;16(2):113-120. doi:10.1037//0893-164x.16.2.113
- Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Raskoff Zeiss A. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1972;21(2):204-218. doi:10.1037/h0032198
- Oaten M, Cheng K. Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. Br J Health Psychol. 2006;11(Pt 4):717-733. doi:10.1348/135910706X96481