Thinking about how to stick to all those New Year’s resolutions? Check out this guest post by Meladie Burke, LPC.
- Every night I think, “I’m going to get up and exercise in the morning”, but I just keep hitting the snooze button.
- I know I should keep walking by that dish of candies without stopping, but I just can’t help myself.
- I know I need to get to bed by 10:00 PM to feel rested, but I then I find myself watching just one more episode on Netflix and before I know it, it’s 1:00 in the morning!
Do any of these feel familiar? You aren’t alone. Many people believe they could improve their lives if they just had more willpower.
The classic study of willpower and delayed gratification was conducted by a psychologist named Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early1970s with the Marshmallow Test. In the original study, children were offered a choice between one small reward (marshmallow) immediately or two small rewards if they could wait a period of time (about 15 minutes) while the researcher left the room. An updated (and quite adorable) version can be found on YouTube. The participants in Mischel’s study were followed throughout life. Those children who, at age 4 and 5, were able to resist eating the marshmallow scored higher on SATs, obtained higher paying jobs and had lower BMI 30 years later than their counterparts who dug in with little delay. Not too bad!
In the past decade, there have been an increasing number of research studies looking into willpower: what it is, how it helps us and how to get more. Much of this research has been done by Angela Duckworth who made a compelling argument in her 2013 TED talk that willpower, persistence and “grit” matters more for academic success than innate intelligence.
Duckworth’s and other’s research has helped us learn the following about willpower:
- Willpower appears to be a finite resource. We can “use it up” through resisting a temptation or exerting self-control over an extended period of time. Additionally, decision making can deplete willpower.
- Using our willpower to please others seems to use more willpower than using it to achieve internal goals.
- Lack of willpower has a physical basis. Willpower is controlled by a portion of the brain related to cognition. Studies indicate that the brains of those with depleted willpower actually work differently. Additionally, willpower uses up glucose reserves in the brain and restoring glucose could help restore willpower.
- Willpower is also bolstered by positive mood. In one study, research subjects who were shown funny videos or received surprise gifts were better able to exert self-control.
How can this information help us pass by that candy jar, stick to our exercise regimen, or tackle our list of chores? Here are a few ideas:
- Since decision making can deplete willpower, consider simplifying choices when you can. For example, if you find yourself making unhealthy or unnecessary purchases at the grocery store, consider that you may be getting overwhelmed by the number of choices. Plan ahead by making a specific list of items you need and want. Keep your focus on your list and use your willpower to stick to it.
- Avoid temptation. Research tells us that the old adage “out of sight out of mind” can be useful in resisting temptation. If you are too distracted by incoming emails and texts to finish a project for work, close that browser tab that keeps indicating you have mail, and put your phone in a drawer or another part of the house.
- Make if-then contingency plans. This idea combines the tips in number 1 and 2 above. If you know that you’ll be encountering unavoidable temptation, make a plan. For example, let’s say I’m trying to cut out late night snacking. My “if-then plan” might be something like: If I get a late-night craving for something sweet, I will make a cup of tea instead. If I’m trying to resist snacking from that candy dish on my co-workers desk, my if-then plan might be: If I am needing to speak with my co-worker, then I take a sugar-free mint before heading over.
- Keep blood sugar even. Not only can eating small meals and adding healthy snacks throughout the day help some regulate their metabolism, loose weight and control hunger, it can also keep the brain fed. If you want to try this strategy, avoid processed foods and stick with whole foods and complex carbohydrates.
- Prioritize. If everything is important then nothing is important. Choose one area where you want to improve your grit, maybe increasing physical activity, eating less processed foods, or reducing the amount of time spent mindlessly watching TV. Focus on that area. Once you’ve developed a habit of mind or action, sticking with it will require less willpower and you can move on to another goal.
Whether you are a eat-a-marshmallow-now or wait-for-two-later type of person, you can increase your willpower.
Meladie Burke, LPC is a therapist in Alexandria, Virginia. Find out more about Meladie at meladieburketherapy.com.