In a 2011 study by the Stress in America Survey, 27% of respondents stated that they believed will-power was their primary barrier to making changes in their lives. However, they also overwhelmingly agreed that they had the ability to change their will-power.
Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. It's being able to say no to a candy bar or glass of wine now, because you know you will feel better in the long run without it.
Researcher Roy Baumeister at the University of Florida has found the four primary "rules of willpower" that will help you strengthen your self- discipline muscle.
1) Using Will-Power involves a Mind-Body Response. Not unlike the "flight or flight response" to stress, the will-power response is called the "Pause and Plan" response. Essentially this response pairs our autonomic and sympathetic systems so that we have the ability to focus attention (as in the fight-or-flight response) but also to stay calm (as in the relaxation response). We have the power to alter our responses by being more aware of how we react to the situation, but some of us are more attuned to being able to mitigate our "Pause and Plan" response than others.
2) Using Will-Power creates "Central Fatigue". When we have to exert our energy to fight our instincts, it depletes our our overall muscular endurance and reduces our blood sugar levels. Our efforts to mentally will ourselves not to do something can fatigue our system overall, making every effort a little harder. Just one more reason to never skip meals and eat foods that help you maintain more stable blood sugar levels. Eating foods that have more protein , fat or fiber will all help stabilize blood sugar.
3) Will power is limited. At some point your will power will run out. It is not only limited because of our physical capacity, but additionally, the more we use will power, the weaker it becomes. If you resist a beer one time, the second time you try to resist will be slightly harder. And the resistance is cumulative, meaning, if your are trying to resist lots of things at once, each occurrence will make every other one that much harder. On top of that, isolating yourself and dealing with high stress situations in your life will also deplete your ability to commit to change. The good news is that it isn't all in your head, but the bad news is that you may not be able to make huge sweeping changes in multiple areas of your life all at once. Select one thing at a time and stay focused. It's easier to keep your focus when you share your journey with a support group or friend too. It’s important to set reasonable goals and priorities so you can conserve your willpower for what really matters.
4) Will Power is Trainable. Stanford researcher, Kelly McGonigal calls it "Becoming the Will Power Athlete" because strengthening will power is comparable to strengthening any other muscle in your body. With consistent training over time, the body adapts and can improve the ability to discipline itself. In fact, research shows that committing to small, consistent acts of willpower in any area—from drinking more water to watching our finances—can increase overall willpower.
Assuming you have done all you can to follow the four rules above and you are still in need of a little more resolve then there are a few options of amping up your ability to stick to your guns:
- Understand that will power is not all in your head, and do your best to support your best ability by decreasing stress where you can, sticking with foods that regulate your blood sugar, and surround yourself with as many positive experiences and reinforcements as you can to remain motivated.
- Be overly prepared. The more you can pre-plan for obstacles the less opportunity you have to be faced with tough choices in the moment. Visualize the way out of all the scenarios you can imagine and make sure to have your primary plans in writing.
- Give yourself a break. Rome wasn't built in a day, and setbacks can truly be just a bump in the road if you don't let yourself fall into the trap of letting one mistake completely take you out of the game. A single mistake doesn’t mean you are weak. It may just mean you’ve already succeeded to the limits of your current ability, and now you deserve a rest or reward to restore your strength.
The Science of Will Power, Kelly McGonigal
What You Need To Know About Will Power: The Psychological Science of Self Control. American Psychological Association