Six Ways to Develop Your Willpower
How to train your brain to toughen up
Why do some of us have willpower, while others struggle? The answer is simple: our upbringing. If our parents gave us what we wanted with little challenge, that became embedded into our adult behaviour — a serious concern, given that long-term studies consistently show that people who possess willpower have greater physical and mental health, fewer criminal convictions, greater financial security and longer-lasting relationships. They are more successful in every walk of life.
Tennis mum Judy Murray knows that only too well: she describes her sons Andy and Jamie’s enormous reserves of determination as being down to the fact “they both come from a background of challenge where money was in short supply, so nothing was taken for granted and everything came with effort”.
In 1998, the psychologist Roy Baumeister found that subjects who resisted a biscuit to eat a radish then gave up on a puzzle more quickly than non-resisters. This led to years of focus on the depletion theory of willpower — that it was akin to a muscle that became exhausted with overuse. The reverse has since been found to be true: the more you succeed in overcoming bad habits (even small ones) or achieving challenging goals, the more you know you can employ willpower to overcome adversity.
The cool, rational response of willpower is to place longer-term gain above immediate temptation, while the hot, emotional response is to indulge or give up. The good news is that a willpower mindset can still be learnt: here’s how.
Step 1: Pause and plan
You are in a bar with friends who have ordered a bottle of wine and poured a glass for you. But you’re not supposed to be drinking. What do you do? To access the upper brain’s cool response, you need to pause and plan, which will stop you from grabbing and gulping. Pause by relaxing: take a deep breath, turn from the bar and remind yourself why you are not drinking. Plan with a strategy: have a soft drink in a wine glass so it looks the same, or ask your friends for support.
Step 2: Visualise goals
Recent research shows that visualising a positive outcome is so powerful that you feel you have achieved your goal already. Bring your goals to life by imagining each step to the result — even a list on the fridge can help.
Step 3: Get the habit
Habits make up 50 per cent of our lives as they save time and effort, leaving room to make big decisions. They are formed in our early years and live in our lower brains. Speaking sternly to yourself just doesn’t work: you need to attack habits another way. Try the 3+9-week willpower rule. Research shows it takes three weeks to establish new behaviour, and a further nine of repetition to make it a habit.
If you want to go for a run every morning, then a pattern must be established. During weeks one to three, alarms may have to be set earlier, the snooze button disabled, kit washed and ready. In weeks four to six, beware of “extinction bursts”, when the brain looks for ways to reinstate old habits. By weeks six to 12, repetition turns your running into an automatic habit complete with the rewards of feeling fitter, more alert at work and sleeping more soundly.
Step 4: Become a realistic optimist
Does your inner voice tell you that you are too fat or too thin, too shy or too busy, too anything to be successful? Psychologist Martin Seligman has followed optimists and pessimists for 40 years, finding that optimists experienced fewer nasty life events, were less likely to become depressed, were more successful in everything they undertook and lived longer. Believing that you are the initiator of your success engenders optimism.
Step 5: Relax
Stress produces cortisol, which has a scouring effect on the brain, robbing you of the ability to respond to things in a measured way. Sleep deprivation (or getting fewer than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. The pre-frontal cortex is hit hard, as it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings. Relaxation is therefore crucial for willpower. Try the power minute each day, in which you count your breaths for 60 seconds — 10 to 12 per minute is the average, and can dramatically reduce stress.
Step 6: Willpower is limitless
Recent studies by Job, Dweck and Walton revealed that when people held the view that willpower was a limited resource, they were far more likely to give up on complex tasks. Those who believed it was limitless kept going despite exhaustion, and produced fewer errors, so self-belief is key.
— The Daily Telegraph