Saving for retirement. Passing up a second bowl of ice cream. Hitting the gym after a long day. Whatever your goal, you need the willpower to achieve it.
So why is it sometimes so hard to keep your resolve?
Willpower isn’t a character trait like we once thought
Willpower isn’t a feature of our character, says Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., and co-author of the book Willpower.
Rather, it’s a level of energy that fluctuates during the day as it is used and replenished. And when you’re tired, stressed, or hungry, your willpower wanes.
It’s not just a sleepless night or skipping lunch that drains the mental batteries. The problem is, the same part of the brain that regulates self-control is also the one you rely on for concentration, decision-making, and long-term planning.
So, after prepping for a tough work meeting, deciding what to have for lunch, and then keeping your cool when a driver cuts you off on your commute home from the office, you’ve depleted the mental resources needed to resist whatever leads you into temptation.
You can learn how to increase willpower
The good news: Studies on the biology of willpower show that, although it can be exhausted with use, like a muscle, it can also be strengthened. Exercise and meditation can create neural pathways that bolster self-control. But the building blocks of willpower start with the golden rules of good health: Eating smart, sleeping well, and managing stress. Also, learning to prioritize responsibilities.
1. Eat smart
The mental wherewithal to resist impulses, regulate your actions, and calibrate your emotions takes energy.
Fortunately, healthful foods that are low on the glycemic index (meaning they won’t spike your blood glucose), provide lots of it. These include veggies and fruits, whole grains, protein, and some fats. They also help maintain the slow burn needed to keep your energy stores up and your blood sugar level on an even keel.
2. Sleep well
If, like many people, you aren’t getting enough rest (experts recommend seven to nine hours a night), willpower loses its home-game advantage.
Sleep deprivation alters activity in some parts of the brain, making it harder to control your behavior (strike one). It interferes with the hormones that regulate appetite, so you crave sugary foods (strike two). And it muddies your cognitive functioning, so you don’t have the attention span or judgment to stick to your goals (strike three).
3. Manage stress effectively
When we’re feeling stressed out, hormones flood our bodies with energy to act instinctively, stealing it from the areas of the brain we rely on for wise decision-making. This leads us to act on more immediate goals and impulses (splurging on an expensive purchase, for instance) and unable to muster our self-control or keep a bigger picture in mind (saving for retirement).
4. Learn to prioritize
Though it’s not exactly a building block of good health, Baumeister offers an additional tip for boosting willpower stamina and using your energy efficiently and effectively: Learn to prioritize.
If you’ve got a lot on your plate, figure out what needs your immediate attention and limit your focus to those tasks. Avoid the pitfall of trying to do everything, he says. Pick your battles and really let go of the others.
Ironically, making healthy lifestyle changes may take some… willpower. But studies show that engaging in new behaviors that get you out of old habits is like boot camp for willpower challenges to come.