Improving Your Will PowerAug 16, 2021
If you can improve your willpower, you will be much more able to make the sort of positive changes you want to see. There are many tools at your disposal with which you can improve your willpower.
In his course, The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Professor Sam Wang explains willpower from the perspective of a neuroscientist. He understands that willpower is just like a muscle. With exercise, it gets stronger.
What would happen if you didn’t regularly exercise and then, without any preparation, you attempted a marathon? There is a strong chance you wouldn’t be able to finish. In fact, you could even do more harm to your body than good. The same thing applies to our willpower. To get stronger and improve our overall self-control, we need to practice and develop it incrementally. But if we try to over-extend our willpower—just like the under-prepared marathon runner—we run the risk of failing, not just once, but over and over again.
To understand willpower and self-control, let’s look at a famous experiment conducted in 1996 by the psychologist Roy Baumeister.
Baumeister asked a group of people not to eat anything three hours prior to coming to the laboratory. Most of the participants came in hungry and ready to eat. The scientists prepared freshly baked chocolate cookies and placed them throughout the room so the entire place smelled strongly of the cookies.
The participants were divided into three groups. One group was asked to eat the cookies. Another group was asked to eat radishes placed in the same room. The third group was in the same room but was offered no food at all.
The participants who were directed to eat radishes and not to eat cookies struggled with temptation (some even picked up the cookies and smelled them), but no one from this group ate them.
Then all the participants were taken into another room. The researchers gave them a puzzle—one that was impossible to solve. But the participants were not aware of that.
Those who were directed to eat the cookies worked on the problem for about 20 minutes. So did the group that was offered no food. The participants who were told to eat radishes and had to resist cookies gave up after an average of eight minutes.
The researchers agreed that the same energy is required to resist something (in this case the cookies) as it is to work on the puzzle. The group that ate radishes but had to resist cookies depleted their energy (willpower) while resisting what they desired. So they had very little willpower left while trying to solve the problem. The other two groups had enough self-control to work on the problem much longer.
This shows that our willpower is limited and that we have to carefully choose when and how to use it, just like a muscle. In other words, if you happen to have an important meeting, a test to take, or a presentation to give, do not try to exercise your self-control by rejecting simple desires like chocolate immediately prior to that meeting.
If you do, your willpower may become depleted, which may affect the outcome of your task. You need to carefully choose when to exercise your self-control and when not to.
The bad news is if you try to over-extend your self-control you can lose motivation for other important activities in your life. The good news is that you can extend your willpower just like you can extend your muscles.
You can start increasing your willpower straight away by taking baby steps in changing certain small habits. One way to improve your willpower is to keep attempting to do things you’ve never done before. For example, for one week try one of the following: pick up utensils or use the computer mouse with your non-dominant hand. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Eat food you have never eaten before. Get the idea?
Tom Rath a Senior scientist at Gallup shows that in another study of habits, people who ate with their non-dominant hands ate less (in this particular study they were eating popcorn). So in addition to improving your willpower, chances are you will also eat less. You gain two huge benefits of introducing one habit. Not bad!
Another interesting piece of research done at Case Western Reserve University showed that making small changes in your habits such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand can improve your willpower.
I’ve brushed my teeth with my dominant hand throughout my entire life, and never had a second thought about it. It was a habit I’d established, and I wasn’t about to break it. However, after learning about this research I decided to give it a shot.
To enhance the effectiveness of the change process, I placed my toothbrush and toothpaste on my left side in order to remind myself to pick it up with my left hand.
At first, this did not make much of a difference, but after a week or so I got into the habit of picking up my toothbrush with my left hand. Every once in a while my right hand would automatically attempt to grab the toothbrush, but I would become conscious of this before brushing and switch hands.
Braco Pobric is an Internationally Recognized Positive Psychology Expert and Corporate Trainer. He is the bestselling author of Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits. Braco is a founding member and Chief Happiness Officer of the Life Success Academy Certified Positive Psychology Master Trainer and former globally Certified Trainer and Business Coach for Dale Carnegie Training. He trained over 60,000 Students in 172 countries.
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