We’re surrounded by temptations. We live in a world where everything is available, all the time.
Sometimes it’s tempting to slump on the sofa, turn on the TV, dial out for a pizza or a curry, grab a drink, and go ‘home shopping’ on our iPad (perhaps with money we don’t have), and just indulge.
But most of the time, to make each day a success, we need to find the strength to do the right thing. We need willpower on our side.
What is willpower?
When we talk about willpower we use words like ‘grit’ and ‘determination’. These are right, they’re spot on. However, to understand willpower it’s helpful to look at how scientists and psychologists define it:
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
The importance of willpower in life
The strength of your willpower is very closely linked to your ability to succeed. It is much more important than intelligence and knowledge!
We know this from numerous psychological studies, dating back to the ‘marshmallow test’ first conducted in the 1960′s. Scientists at Stanford tested the willpower of 4 year-olds by offering them a selection of treats, including marshmallows. They could eat 1 marshmallow right away, or wait and eat 2 marshmallows later. About 30% resisted the temptation and received the reward of 2 marshmallows. Years later, the Stanford scientists tracked down the participants in high school.
The 4 year-olds who had the strength to resist the temptation and delay gratification had become high school students with significantly higher school grades and SAT scores (they were also better able to maintain friendships and had a greater capacity to ‘cope with significant problems’.
5 ways to strengthen willpower
Put away the obvious temptations: scientists have likened willpower to a muscle (the research shows that the strength of our willpower diminishes if we have to use it constantly). Avoid tiring yourself out with obvious and avoidable distractions. Put snacks away, rather than on the table. Take the beer out the fridge and put it away in a cupboard. Save your strength for when it matters most.
Plan your moves: Use a “what if” model to plan ahead and anticipate moments when you’re willpower will be challenged. For example: “what if I’m offered dessert and coffee?” Decide in advance how you’ll react: “OK, I will order a fruit platter and an expresso, that will keep my calorie intake on track.” Planning ahead makes for smart use of your willpower.
Focus, one challenge at a time: A list of New Year’s resolutions rarely works because our willpower is spread across too many challenges. It’s much better to focus on one challenge at a time, build up the right habits and routines in one focused area, and then move on to a new challenge. When we are feeling motivated to change it’s tempting to say “OK, I’m doing to change this, this, this and this”, but resist, pick one challenge at a time, and focus your efforts for better results.
Do it for yourself, not others: research show that our willpower is stronger when we’re taking action for ourselves, rather than having change imposed on us. For example: it may be that your partner wants you to quit smoking. That’s good, but to give yourself the best chance of success, you have to first identify all the reasons why you want to quit smoking. Do it for yourself, not for others and you’re more likely to succeed.
Little and often: just like a muscle, you can strengthen your willpower with the right exercise regime. Too much and you’ll become exhausted and burnt out, too little and you’ll under-achieve. Be mindful of this. Set yourself challenges that are appropriate, achieve small wins (just as you would if you were starting a physical exercise regime), and slowly build your strength over time.
Now all I need is the willpower to finish this article… 🙂