How to boost your willpower.
Do you have difficulties in making decisions at the end of the day? Are you reaching for that chocolate bar at the check out counter? Feeling uninspired to go for a run early in the am? Depending on my day, I confess to a lacking motivation in all of the above scenarios. But there are ways to strengthen your willpower to overcome temporary obstacles or temptations.
In the past (and some still do), psychologists believed that the brain was a muscle and making too many decisions in a row, resulted in declined quality decision-making. They also argued this decreased our ability of being self-restrained, leading to acting impulsively or avoiding making decisions all together.
The state of feeling overwhelmed was in the late 90’s coined “decision fatigue” by the social psychologist Baumeister. Various coping strategies were developed and are still actively advocated by self-help gurus. These suggestions range from wardrobe minimizing, weekly dinner plans, activity scheduling, to eat before making important decisions, etc.
Although some of these suggestions are brilliant ideas to make your life more organised and balanced, I doubt they will significantly increase your motivation.
In fact, the brain is a living organ, not a muscle and as such does not consume extra energy.(Eyal, N, 2016). So the tiredness we feel at the end of the day is more likely linked to physical exertion, not energy weakening in our brains.
Stanford Professor Dweck (2013) uncovered that signs of so called “ego depletion”, an inability to make well balanced choices due to exhaustion from making decisions, were only found in people who believed willpower was a limited resource.
People, who did not see their willpower as finite, did not show any signs of ego depletion. So Dweck developed the theory that it is our belief that drives our behaviour, e.g. thinking we are tired, makes us feel worse and justifies a reward to make us feel better.
“If people believe that their willpower is limited they show much poorer self-control than people who believe their willpower is a large, self-generating resource.” Carol S.Dweck, 2013.
Michael Inzlich (2018), professor of psychology of Toronto University, supports this approach, describing how self-discipline acts like an emotion, not a finite resource. It ebbs and flows based on what’s happening to us, or how we feel at that particular moment.
So how can we enhance our determination, and make informed decisions, avoiding acting impulsively?
You might find adopting some of the following techniques useful.
Ride out the wave
As willpower is not mental energy, but an emotion, you can learn how to manage and use it as such. Practice how to ride out a bad feeling, as you know it will pass. When encountering a difficult task, remind yourself that the lack of motivation you experience is only temporary. This is more effective than succumbing to the thought that you are tired; need a break and something to eat to feel better. Avoid listening to your justifications to why you can’t do it.
Pay attention to your intuition
We give up on tasks that don’t engage us. If you feel boredom and a lack of motivation lingering around repeatedly, listen carefully to what your feelings are telling you. Perhaps you need to find a new more innovative way of carrying out the task, or need to abandon the task completely.
Acknowledge that you are sufficiently good enough and don’t have to perform a task to perfection. Allow yourself a bit of slack, it releases some of the tensions tied up to this belief.
Focus on the benefits
Try to look beyond the present moment. Visualise how much better you will feel both psychologically and physically, after you have had that run, made that important decision or stuck to the diet. This positive image acts as a motivator and distracts you from any temptations.
Adopt healthier habits in response to mild stressors
When our body is experiencing stress, we produce cortisol. A common response is to reach for cortisol lowering carbohydrates (sweets anyone?) and/or alcohol. As this is obviously not great for our overall health, replace this urge with going for a quick walk, listening to calming music, some simple deep breathing exercises or visualizing a calming space. Building new healthier habits will increase your willpower to resist temptations.
The bottom line is, when you are feeling demotivated listen to your emotions. Is there another way of performing the task? Don’t listen to the nagging little voice in your head saying you can’t do this right now. You do have self-control and determination within you to carry it out. Ride out the difficult feeling, recall that it is only temporary and distract yourself. With the risk of sounding corny: believe in yourself, you are stronger than you think.
Eyal, N.; 2016, “Have we been thinking about willpower the wrong way for 30 years?”Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from :
Gupta, S; Sep 10th, 2013,
Job, V; Walton, G, Bernecker, K; & Dweck, C., 2013, Sep10th,
Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control
Inzlict, M., 2018, The Toronto Laboratory for Neuro Science explores the science of self-control.Retrieved from : http://michaelinzlicht.com/research/