The American Psychological Association’s 2011 Stress in America Survey proved that willpower is a major hindrance for most people. Willpower was the top reason (27%) people cited for being unable to make healthy lifestyle changes. A whopping 57% of people said they wanted to lose weight, and 50% wanted to eat healthier. However, fewer than one in five adults report being successful at making health-related improvements.
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification today to meet your goals in the future. Studies have proven that children with low willpower tend to have weak willpower as adults. However, experts hopefully point out that willpower can be strengthened with effort, regardless of your natural inclination. These 12 tips will help you to get started doing just that:
- Focus on one goal at a time – don’t resolve to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise every day, and start meditating simultaneously. Be very clear about what your goal is and why you want to achieve it.
- Do it for you – people who can resist a plate of tempting cookies were more likely to name internal reasons for exercising willpower than external reasons like wanting to please the experimenter. Think of tasks requiring willpower as things that you want to do, rather than something that you have to or should do.
- Monitor your progress – tracking your workouts, food intake, cigarette cravings, etc. will help you focus on the end game and stay on track.
- If you slip up, don’t give up – get right back on the horse and continue on the road to success.
- Find people to support you – these people can be coworkers, friends, family members, or defined groups such as Weight Watchers.
- Make good choices automatic – don’t stock the freezer with ice cream, keep an “emergency cigarette” in the glove compartment, or store the exercise equipment in the basement where you hate going. Commit to doing something by, for example, signing up for a fitness class with your friend so that you’re less likely to talk yourself into skipping your workout.
- Don’t go for too long without eating – restoring low blood glucose appears to improve waning willpower. Eat some fruit and see if you feel a little more motivated.
- Boost your mood – in one study, participants who were shown comedic videos and surprised with gifts were better able to exercise self-control.
- Have a plan in place – for example, if everyone orders dessert after dinner, you’ll get a nonfat latte.
- Get enough sleep – sleep deprivation can negatively affect your ability to resist temptation.
- Postpone – remind yourself that if you still really want cookies in three days, you’ll stop and pick some up. By continuing to hold off, you can improve your impulse control.
- Distract yourself – go for a walk, clean something, call a friend, or have a cup of tea. Cravings often pass within 20 minutes.
Although necessary, you should try to remember that willpower alone isn’t enough. Before willpower can work, you have to come to terms with the idea that a change is necessary, identify possible barriers that you could encounter, devise ways to overcome these barriers and develop a system to monitor your success. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you’ll need to work to maintain and manage the change and develop strategies to cope with possible relapses.
American Heart Association. How to boost your willpower to help make healthy choices easy. Updated April 19, 2018.
American Psychological Association. Harnessing willpower to meet your goals. Updated 2014.
American Psychological Association. What you need to know about willpower. Updated 2012.
American Psychological Association. Willpower and living healthy.
Duke Integrative Medicine. Strengthening our willpower muscles. Updated December 17,
2019. U.S. News & World Report. Does willpower get stronger or weaker with use? Updated November 29, 2018.