Sometimes I am confronted with the fact that my willpower is not as strong as I want or need it to be. This apparently manifests when I start watching YouTube videos, and I don’t know why. I am able to avoid more destructive forms of activities, but it’s still a problem that I can’t stop myself from wasting time that way, when I could be doing better things, even if it’s just watching really good series or something.
Anyway, there are more than enough reasons to improve your willpower. Which is actually possible. Today I’ve researched a few articles which provide crucial insights into willpower, most notably the extensive American Psychological Association article “What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control”. Note that you have to click on the triangles or headings to display the different parts of the article.
What I’m interested in, are effective ways to increase my willpower. The general theme of the articles is that you build more willpower by applying willpower (“willpower is like a muscle”). Of course, there’s also the other approach of building habits and doing other things to avoid using up willpower unnecessarily. In the following I will distinguish between these willpower application (A) approaches, willpower conservation © approaches, and approaches which focus on other factors (F).
So, what do the American Psychologists suggest?
© “Avoiding temptation is one effective tactic for maintaining
self-control. In Walter Mischel’s marshmallow study (in which preschool
children had the choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or
waiting an unspecified amount of time for two marshmallows), the
children who stared directly at the treat were less likely to resist it
than were kids who closed their eyes, turned away, or otherwise
distracted themselves. The “out of sight, out of mind” principle applies
to adults, too. One recent study, for instance, found office workers
who kept candy in a desk drawer indulged less than when they kept the
candy on top of their desks, in plain sight.”
Another strategy, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to work for me, but hey, everyone is different:
© “Another helpful tactic for improving self-control is a technique that
psychologists call an “implementation intention.” Usually these
intentions take the form of “if-then” statements that help people plan
for situations that are likely to foil their resolve. For example,
someone who’s watching her alcohol intake might tell herself before a
party, “If anyone offers me a drink, then I’ll ask for club soda with
lime.” Research among adolescents and adults has found that
implementation intentions improve self-control, even among people whose
willpower has been depleted by laboratory tasks. Having a plan in place
ahead of time may allow you to make decisions in the moment without
having to draw on your willpower.”
Not entirely unsurprisingly, motivation plays a role for the availability of willpower:
Mark Muraven found that willpower-depleted individuals persisted on a self-control task when
they were told they’d be paid for their efforts, or that their efforts would benefit others (such as helping to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease). High motivation, he concludes, might help overcome weakened willpower — at least to a point.
Finally, the article comes to the (A) approaches:
(A) In one of the first demonstrations of this idea, Muraven and his
colleagues asked volunteers to follow a two-week regimen to track their
food intake, improve their moods or improve their posture. Compared to a
control group, the participants who had exerted self-control by
performing the assigned exercises were less vulnerable to willpower
depletion in follow-up lab tests. In another study, he found that
smokers who practiced self-control for two weeks by avoiding sweets or
regularly squeezing a handgrip were more successful at quitting smoking
than control subjects who performed two weeks of regular tasks that
required no self-control, such as writing in a diary.
It’s interesting that the authors assume that writing in a diary doesn’t require willpower. I’m very inclined to say that this is clearly wrong. It may require less willpower for some people than the other mentioned activities, but I’d say that it still requires a non-negligible amount of willpower. A real control group should not have been instructed to do anything.
(A) Others have also found that flexing your willpower muscles can
strengthen self-control over time. Australian scientists Megan Oaten,
PhD, and Ken Cheng, PhD, of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia,
assigned volunteers to a two-month program of physical exercise — a
routine that required willpower. At the end of two months, participants
who had stuck with the program did better on a lab measure of
self-control than did participants who were not assigned to the exercise
regimen. That’s not all. The subjects also reported smoking less and
drinking less alcohol, eating healthier food, monitoring their spending
more carefully, and improving their study habits. Regularly exercising
their willpower with physical exercise, it seemed, led to better
willpower in nearly all areas of their lives.
So, exercise is really good at improving willpower. It’s not too far fetched to assume that this is because doing exercise (regularly) actually requires a lot of willpower!
(F) The findings that willpower depletion is tied to glucose levels also
suggest a possible remedy. Eating regularly to maintain blood-sugar
levels in the brain may help refuel run-down willpower stores. (But
don’t let the term “sugar” fool you. Healthy meals without refined sugar
are actually better than sweets at keeping blood-sugar levels on an
even keel, experts say.) Dieters, who are aiming to maintain willpower
while cutting calories, might do better eating frequent small meals
rather than skipping breakfast or lunch.
So, nutrition is also an important factor. Low blood glucose levels threaten your willpower, but eating sweets like the super-detective L probably won’t work.
Let’s come to the next article and what it has to teach to us: https://blog.bufferapp.com/willpower-and-the-brain-why-its-so-hard-to-avoid-temptation
- (F) Reduce stress, because stress shuts down the part of the brain which you need for applying willpower!
- (F) Get more sleep!
- (A) Meditate! Significant results can be seen after 8 weeks of daily meditation.
- (A) Exercise, again.
- (A) Postpone rewards or guilty pleasures.
Next, a guardian article explains why willpower really matters a lot, and how to train it. Here’s one of the most interesting sections of the article:
Like a muscle, it can get tired if you overuse it. Exercising
willpower, but also making decisions and choices and taking initiatives,
all seem to draw on the same well of energy, Baumeister has
established. In experiments, he found that straight after accomplishing a
task that required them to restrain their impulses (saying no to
chocolate biscuits, suppressing their emotions while watching a
three-tissue weepy), students were far more likely to underperform at
other willpower-related jobs such as squeezing a handgrip or solving a
“The immune system also dips into the same pot, which is big, but
finite,” says Baumeister, “and, we are pretty sure, so does women’s
premenstrual syndrome. Having a cold tends to reduce your self-control,
and PMS does the same. We get cranky and irritable, but it’s not that we
have nastier impulses – it’s that our usual restraints have become
So best avoid trying to do too many things involving mental effort at
the same time, or if you’re ill. As with a muscle, though, you can
train your willpower. Even small, day-to-day acts of willpower such as
maintaining good posture, speaking in complete sentences or using a
computer mouse with the other hand, can pay off by reinforcing
longer-term self-control in completely unrelated activities, Baumeister
has found. People previously told to sit or stand up straight whenever
they remembered later performed much better in lab willpower tests.
It seems quite interesting that the immune system is affected in a very similar manner by willpower-depletion! The reason for that is probably that the brain and the immune system are very energy hungry systems. So, if blood glucose is low, these systems are affected by it first!
And finally some tips:
Baumeister’s top willpower tips: Build up your self-control by
exercising it regularly in small ways. Learn to recognise signs that
your willpower may be waning. Don’t crash diet. Don’t try to do too much
at once. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain
off your willpower. Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list.
Don’t put yourself in temptation’s way, or if you can’t avoid it, make
it harder for yourself to succumb. Use your willpower actively: plan,
commit, and do so (like members of religious communities) publicly.
“People with low willpower,” Baumeister says, “use it to get themselves
out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves
The fourth article comes up with some very interesting insights: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/good-thinking/201306/how-boost-your-willpower
Don’t keep yourself in a constant state of willpower depletion
Weight-lifting is a great way to build muscle. But you wouldn’t spend
half an hour lifting weights just before helping a friend move his
furniture because you know that your muscles would be too fatigued to do
a good job. Neither would you spend hours daily lifting weights with no
recovery time. The same holds for willpower. While wisely exercising
self-control is a great way to build willpower, never giving yourself a
break is a good way to deplete your resolve.
In sports, coaches and trainers often draw a distinction between comfort zones and
stretch zones. If you are comfortable running a 10-minute mile,
increasing your pace to a 9-minute mile puts you in your stretch zone.
Alternating between the two is a good way to improve your performance.
But staying in your stretch zone indefinitely is not a good idea. Your
risk of injury increases, and your performance will suffer in the long
run due to a lack of recovery time. The same holds for willpower.
So, intelligent training is probably very important for building up willpower effectively. Also, the need for relaxation seems to be interesting. I’m a bit optimistic that in the best case, it will be enough to sleep and eat in order to restore willpower to maximum levels, but planning some “willpower leisure time” might actually make sense – at least before you have reached that very level of willpower at which you don’t need that.
(A) In one study (link is external),
participants were asked to watch a movie, and a bowl of chocolate candy
was placed nearby. One group were told to imagine they had decided to
eat as much as they wanted, a second group were told imagine they had
decided to eat none, and a third group were told to imagine they’d
decided to eat them later on. The first group did indeed eat more than
the other two groups. But when given the opportunity to eat candy later,
those who imagined they would delay eating the candy actually ate
significantly less than the other two groups. They even reported having
less desire for candy when queried through email following day.
Again, delaying gratification seems to be a surprisingly effective strategy!
(A) Think about something else.
You can even use your imagination to keep unwanted thoughts at bay. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), Fyodor Dostoyevsky made this observation: “Try
to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you
will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” How
do you avoid thinking about a white bear (or any other situation that
tempts you or fills you with dread)? Train yourself to think about
something else: Every time that white bear begins to lurk about in your
consciousness, think about a black bear instead. Every time that
unwanted thought threatens to intrude on your consciousness, think about
something pleasant instead. That puts you in the driver’s seat of your
Don’t underestimate this simple technique. In Mischel’s famous
marshmallow study, “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by
distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or
turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object,
or singing to themselves.
Are you thinking about something that is distracting you? Distract yourself from the distraction!
Finally, the last article is about the connection of willpower to lucid dreaming. This is a connection, which I’ve already stumbled upon, since it’s know that both meditation and regular lucid dreaming strengthen the prefrontal cortex, which is totally central is using willpower.
Willpower is the directing of behavior toward actions which are at
odds with our instinctual and/or habitual programming. Willpower is
tied to consciousness because the latter is the platform in which will
is made possible. Ever wonder why we have the ability to be
subjectively “aware” of the world (inner and outer), instead of simply
being automatons reacting blindly to the winds of change?
Consciousness is the mental space in which we can make complicated
choices which are predicated on long-range goals. Rather than pissing
where ever we stand or eating whenever and whatever we are accustomed
to, we can make choices based on very complicated computations - and
the platform in which these computations can exist in is what we call
consciousness. Many animals have the ability for conscious thought,
presumably, but humans have an especially developed form of this
natural wonder. Consciousness allows for a special control of
behavior, but what exactly is behavior? Behaviors are any organized
pattern of muscular contraction, gland excretion, or neural-circuit
activation. This third category of behavior infers that thoughts are
actually behavior actions, but it should be understood that all three
categories are intertwined and depend on each other. Which brings me to
a third will-strengthening technique: single-point meditation.
The “how-to” for this type of medication is outlined in another
article, but the relationship between volition and just sitting still
and breathing for a few minutes is that this type of behavior is VERY
difficult to endure and necessitates the exercising of one’s
volitional faculties. Because we are all accustomed to particular
patterns of muscular and glandular contractions and to the progression
of somewhat un-restrained thoughts every second of every day, the
ability to sit still and return conscious awareness back to your
breathing (as it invariably strains to flow elsewhere) may require a
Herculean effort of will. Training in meditative practice is one of
the most direct routes to improving volitional control. And breath
this in: Lucid Dreaming may be viewed as willpower 2.0. Not only does
maintaining lucidity require a high level of conscious control of
behavior, it also allows for an unprecedented manifestation of our
intents. In lucid dreams you can practice and learn to control the
environment and even your dream-body in ways which are simply not
possible during normal waking existence.
And here the final words of that article:
Here we have gone over four very approachable exercises for
strengthening willpower, and we can assume that if we improve at any
of these behaviors through conscious practice, then our volitional
reserves and ability to exert our will onto other behaviors will
likewise be improved. I tend to think that carry-over effects - where
improvement at one activity leads to improvement in other activities -
is somewhat limited. Yes, learning to hold your urge to eat may have
some effect on your ability to, let’s say, run longer when we want to
give up, but it should be no surprise that actually practicing at the
running longer should have the most influence on that same activity.
Cross-training is beneficial, but also keep in mind that only you know
what it is you would like to, or need to, improve the most at when it
comes to improving your will-reserves and endurance. Do that! Like
the saying goes: “If I can’t, then I must.” This quip concerns
stretching our realities, expanding our abilities. It is not meant to
refer to things like “If I cannot jump off a skyscraper without a
parachute then I must.” No, be intelligent. However, if you need to
work 10-hours straight every day for a few weeks or months to achieve
the implementation of your business plan, then you simply have to
practice stretching that ability. Relentlessly. With passion. Will can
overcome almost any challenge.
So, what else can be done to enhance our willpower? Since we don’t have implants, yet, which have that effect, we will have to do with more primitive means. Are there supplements which could help increase willpower? Are there especially effective strategies for that? Anyway, let me summarize my top strategies:
- (A) Exercise, daily, ideally a lot, optimally even twice a day
- (A) Meditation, daily (I really actually need to do that consistently sigh)
- (A) Cold showers in the morning, daily
- (A / C) Make a schedule for the day, also including spare time, daily (yes, it’s a pain in the ass to do that, but it can work, if you don’t overdo it)
- © Don’t try to do multiple difficult projects at once!
- (A) Perhaps start learning how to dream lucidly more often. Later, not now
What are your thoughts, ideas, and strategies?