How to Strengthen Your Willpower

New Year 2016

It's mid-January, that time of year when a person's zeal to start fresh in the new year might be starting to fade. But don't give up on your resolutions quite yet! Psychologist Tim Bono has some research-proven tips for how to successfully build willpower. Bono, an assistant dean in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, teaches the popular course Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness. 

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Full transcript

Claire Navarro: Thanks for listening to Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Navarro. It’s a couple weeks into January, so many of us are thinking about self-improvement and our New Year’s resolutions. Maybe this year you walk to start working out more and eating less junk food. Maybe you want to pick up a new hobby or be more responsible with your money or your time. According to psychologist Tim Bono, all of these common New Year’s resolutions have one thing in common.

Tim Bono: Ultimately, all of those behaviors involve regulating our impulses. We might have an impulse to eat junk food or to waste time on social media instead of using it on things that are more productive. To override those impulses, we need willpower, or what psychologists will typically call self-regulatory strength.

CN: Willpower: it sometimes seems like one of those things that either you have it or you don’t. If a friend turns down desert or resists a shopping impulse, it’s easy to be like, “Oh, you have such great willpower,” like it’s a quality he or she was born with. But according to Bono, people can and do increase their own willpower, and in today’s podcast, he is going to tell us how it works and how to do it. Let’s get started.

TB: One useful analogy to think of willpower is to think of it as a muscle. If we want the muscles in our body to get stronger, the way to do that is by using our muscles to work them out, to exercise them. Overtime, the more that we work them out, the stronger those muscles become and the easier it is to use those muscles again in the future. The same thing holds for willpower.

CN: Like with building muscle, it helps to start small. After all, you don’t walk into the gym for the first time and start lifting hundred pound weights or do a half-marathon the first time you put on running shoes. The same is true for willpower.

TB: If we can get ourselves to exercise willpower in the small, everyday behaviors in our lives—things like resisting the urge to check our phone for new text messages or emails every time we are walking or at a stop light or resisting the temptation to get that candy bar at the checkout line of the grocery store—those are things that each themselves require self-regulatory strength; those are the small everyday behaviors that allow us to strengthen our willpower muscles. The more we exercise that self-control, the easier it is to use self-control in the future.

CN: Here is where it gets really interesting. Take that example of resisting candy in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. You may think that by fighting that one urge you are working on one good habit, or willpower muscle; overtime with practice, it will become easier and easier to turn away from the candy. But you are actually doing much more. If you strengthen your willpower against one type of temptation—like the candy—that increased willpower carries over to other parts of your life. Once again, it’s like a muscle.

TB: In the gym, if you are able to lift a dumbbell that weighs a certain amount, then you are going to be able to lift other heavy things that are not necessarily that specific dumbbell but are still heavy. If you can get yourself to resist the temptation for candy or other small temptations, then the other temptations like checking social media at work—if you are able to override one set of temptations, then you will be to override other temptations even though they are a little different.

CN: This seems very encouraging. Maybe even by remembering to floss my teeth or some other sort of behavior, I’m sort of working on my New Year’s resolution. But how do we know this is actually how willpower works? The answer is science! Researchers have tested this.

TB: There was one study a couple years ago that enrolled people in an exercise program. That is one way that people are having to override the impulse of staying home on the couch. They took a look at all the other behaviors of their life: how well they got along with their friends and family, did they miss appointments, were they late for work, did they leave the dirty dishes in the sink. Sure enough, it turns out that willpower is sort of this general construct that if we can exercise it in one area, it will in fact spill over and effect our ability to maintain good willpower in other aspects of our lives. Even resisting the urge to check our phones or not get the candy bars, those are the things that will carry over to our productivity at work.

CN: There is a slight complication. We’ve been talking about long-term success, how to build up your willpower over time. But in the short term, willpower is once again like muscle power. In any given amount time, you only have so much. You probably wouldn’t work out right before going to help a friend move to a new apartment when you know you’re going to be lifting a lot of heavy boxes. You know you only have so much physical strength in one day. By resisting the candy bar at the grocery store, you are building up your long-term strength, but immediately afterward, it’s harder to use your willpower; you’ve used up some of it already. Psychologists have studied this, too.

TB: There are a couple classic studies where you bring people into a lab and ask them to solve really challenging puzzles. In some cases, these are puzzles that are actually impossible to solve. You simple measure how much time they spend on them and how many times they go back and try.

CN: More time spent trying to solve the puzzles means people are using more of their willpower, but in these studies, some of the people taking the test were at a disadvantage. The psychologists essentially took away some of their willpower in a way that if you have a sweet tooth may sound more like torture than research.

TB: For half of the participants, you give them some task that’s going to deplete their self-regulatory strength. A very common way for people to do this is to put a plate of chocolate-chip cookies in front of them and say, “You can’t have these.” The other half of the people are told “Oh, if you would like some of these cookies, by all means. These are left over from a lab meeting.” It’s the people who are put into a situation where they can’t eat the cookies, they are having to override their impulse to eat them. That is depleting their willpower muscles, and sure enough, those are the people who give up much more quickly on the puzzles they are given that are very difficult or impossible to solve. That is one way scientists have gathered empirical evidence to suggest that if you deplete willpower in one domain of life, there’s going to be less remaining in another domain, like the ability to solve a problem.

CN: So we’ve learned that to strengthen our willpower, we have to use it… but not all at once. For example, if you know you are going to have to use a lot of willpower during a presentation at work, that might not be the right morning to get up early before work and go for a run. Still, knowing that it’s possible to build up willpower muscles doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, as many of us know who are starting to fumble with our New Year’s resolutions. Say you’re giving up chocolate. Suddenly, all you think about is chocolate. By making something sort of a forbidden fruit, it’s almost harder to overcome your desire for it. Bono has a few suggestions for getting past these mental hurdles.

TB: On the front end, it’s important to acknowledge that that is simply a normal human reaction. The fact that we’ve made something an object that we are not going to allow ourselves to have is going to increase the desirability of that item. The other thing is to have a contingency plan in place and to acknowledge that there are going to be moments where, you know, I’ve told myself I’m not going to eat as much chocolate in the New Year. There are going to be moments where I crave chocolate. Think on the front end, “Ok, when I have those moments, when those cravings come up, what are the things I’m going to do? Maybe I’m going to have a piece of fruit instead. Maybe I’m going to go for a run. Maybe I’m going to call a friend. Maybe I’m going to do something else.” But if you can think about that on the front end, then when those moments come up, you say, “Oh! That’s one of those moments. What are the plans I have in place?”

CN: So have a plan for what to do when you are tempted, and also remember that it’s OK to be flexible.

TB: Maybe you’ve said, “OK, I’m not going to eat anymore chocolate what so ever.” See how that goes, and if you find you are only to go three days at a time and then you realize that you binge on chocolate on the fourth day, see if you can say, “I’m going to go three days without any chocolate, and then on the forth day, I’m going to let myself have two pieces of chocolate.” It’s just bringing awareness to whatever you are realistically able to manage, and then see if you can modify the behavior. Instead of going completely cold turkey on something, maybe the original goal that we set was too ambitious. Perhaps what is more realistic is to think about, “What are the modifications I can make to bring it closer to the goal even if it is not the goal itself?” And then gradually, maybe overtime, you will be able to achieve the ultimate goal.

CN: So in addition to having to a plan to deal with temptation, it’s also important to know what to do when those plans don’t work out. According to Bono, part of what drives success with building willpower, working towards these types of goals, and really life in general is learning how to deal with failure.

TB: I think it is important to give yourself permission to acknowledge that there are going to be difficulties, that you are going to have missteps, and if you look at any successful person who has been successful in any domain of their life, I think that they will tell you that in order to achieve that success they had to learn certain lessons or acquire certain experiences that allowed them to achieve that success. Very often, the best way, and sometimes the only way, to learn those lessons or to achieve that success is through failure, through trying things one way, recognizing what doesn’t work, and then making the appropriate modifications moving forward. If you find yourself with a particular goal in mind, and you stumble and you fail a little bit, that’s not necessarily a sign of defeat. Maybe it’s just a sign that something needs to be modified. Use that as an opportunity to reflect on it and think, “OK, that approach didn’t work. That doesn’t mean I have to drop that goal. This means that I maybe have to take a different approach to this goal or I have to slow down a little bit.” From that, use it as an opportunity to learn those lessons and acquire the experience for yourself to achieve that goal you have in mind.

CN: Many thanks to Tim Bono for joining Hold That Thought, and good luck to all of our listeners in your goals for the new year ahead. If one of your goals is to learn and listen and explore a world of ideas, be sure to listen to more of our podcasts. You can find us at holdthatthought.wustl.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, and you can find our weekly podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and PRX. Thanks for listening.

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