Willpower Part III: How To Strengthen Your Willpower and 20 Ways To Conserve It

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In the first post in this series, we discussed the nature of willpower, noting that is a real mental energy.

In the second post, we explored the way in which this mental energy is a finite resource and how it can be depleted through the exercising of self-control and the making of decisions.

Now if willpower is a real, finite energy, the question that naturally arises is this: What can I do to strengthen, conserve, and harness this force to help me reach my full potential? The answer to that question is what we will be diving into today.

How to Strengthen Your Willpower

While there are many ways to conserve your willpower, there's really just one way to strengthen it.

By working on any goal or habit that exercises your self-control.

Remember when we talked about how willpower is like a muscle, and that just like a muscle, you have to exhaust it in the short-term in order to build its strength in the long-term? When you work to change a habit, you deplete your willpower in the struggle, but over time, the strength of your willpower muscle increases from these exercises, making you better able to take on future tasks.

Your willpower is strengthened not only by tackling big goals, but also by doing anything that gets your brain out of its comfort zone – things like using your left hand instead of your right (if you're a righty), working on your posture throughout the day, and trying to stop swearing have all been shown to increase the overall stamina of a person's willpower.

The best part about creating a new habit is that not only does it strengthen your willpower, it also frees up more of your willpower fuel for other things. When a decision becomes a habit, it draws little, if any, willpower from your supply. The more good decisions you can make habitual, the less taxes on your willpower tank you'll experience throughout the day.

This is why people with stronger self-control actually spend less time resisting desires than those with weaker self-control. By creating good habits, they minimize the number of temptations they'll be faced with by making as many decisions as automatic as possible.

How to Conserve Your Willpower

Okay, so in order to strengthen your willpower, you need to work towards reaching a goal or changing/creating a habit. But everyone who's ever tried to do that knows it's not easy! How do you get enough willpower to strive towards and achieve your aims in the first place?

They key is to consciously conserve this force, keeping it from being frittered away on dumb stuff and saving it for the things that are most important to you. What follows are 20 ways to do that. This is incredibly vital knowledge; the man who learns how to harness this force of greatness is he who reaches his goals, makes better decisions, and progresses farthest in life.

Note: Some of these points are interesting and important topics in and of themselves, not only as they concern willpower, but life in general, and we had so much to say that the first draft of this post grew into a truly epic tome. So a ton was cut out (it's still long though!), but we will be revisiting many of these points with their own in-depth articles throughout the year (a comprehensive post on goal setting will arrive next week, in fact). In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about the very fascinating studies that back up the efficacy of these techniques, pick up a copy of the book this series has been based on: Willpower: by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.

1. Only work on one goal at a time. If you only take one idea from this post, let it be this: only work on one goal or habit at a time. Because your willpower is a finite resource, when you spend your willpower on one thing, you have less it available for other things. Thus when you try to change multiple habits at the same time, what you're doing is allocating just one sliver of your willpower pie to each goal. The result is not surprising: failure in most, if not all of them.

Instead, you want to funnel as much of your willpower fuel towards one thing as you can. Changing any habit is like driving an auto up a very steep mountain – the engine on your willpower-mobile needs as much power as possible to get to the top and over the other side without puttering out and sliding back.

2. Make changes during periods of calm. If your willpower is a finite resource, then you don't want to attempt big goals and habit changes when you’ve got a lot on your plate. These stressors will suck away your willpower, leaving you without enough of it to reach your big goal.

3. Make your goal as clear and specific as possible. While some cynics scoff at those who make New Year's resolutions, the resolvers get the last laugh; people who make formal New Year's resolutions are ten times more likely to reach their goals than those with the same aims and motivation, but who never clearly articulate their aims.

Hoping to reach a goal without clearly defining it is like trying to find a place by simply driving around; you're not sure exactly where you're headed and thus fruitlessly burn up your fuel – or willpower.

4. Set things up on autopilot. When I wrote this post about how to stop mindlessly surfing the internet, I recommended implementing firewall software that blocks you from looking at certain sites at set times. Some criticized this approach as insufficiently manly, arguing that I should just work to overcome my mindless surfing through willpower alone. And that would be a fine idea…if I wanted to make that my one big goal for a time. However, that's way down on my goal list – I've got more important things I'm working on for which I need every possible drop of my willpower supply. So maybe someday I'll get down to making the ability to resist mindless surfing a habit, but in the meantime, I want to minimize any willpower sucks in my life by making that an automatic decision.

5. Don't make big decisions on an empty stomach. The glucose in your bloodstream is part of what fuels the energy source of willpower, and it comes from any food you eat that contains carbohydrates. Exercising self-control depletes relatively large amounts of this glucose, and when glucose goes down, so does your willpower. No food=no glucose=no willpower=risk aversion and poor decisions.

This is why you should never go into anything important – a meeting, an interview, a test — on an empty stomach. And why you shouldn't schedule say, a pitch meeting, right before lunch if you want to increase your chances of getting a yes.

If you need your glucose hit right away, eat something sugary, as this will get the glucose into your bloodstream and to your willpower supply quickly. But if you have time, eat high protein, low glycemic foods – the glucose will take an hour to get into your bloodstream, but you’ll avoid a sugar crash and such foods are better for you in general.

By the way, this connection between food, glucose, and willpower is one of the reasons dieting is so difficult. To shed pounds you need to eat less, and to eat less you need willpower, and to get willpower you need to eat. This conundrum explains why willpower has been shown to be more effective for making improvements in areas like school and work rather than one's waistline; people with high self-control are in fact only slightly better at maintaining a healthy weight (they do exercise more, but this has much less effect on one's weight than diet does). Willpower experts thus recommend trying to lose weight by making very subtle changes to one's diet instead of drastic reductions.

6. Make to-do lists. Once you finish a task, your brain largely forgets about it. But unfinished tasks have been shown to stick in your head and jangle around. Your brain hates loose ends and will keep nudging you to do something about them.

The problem with these loose ends camping on your cranium is that they're subtly eating up your willpower. They're like so-called u201Cvampire appliances,u201D appliances that are plugged in all the time and suck up a little bit of electricity even when you're not actually using them.

To un-plug your vampire to-do's, you simply need to take the loose ends out of your head and put them down on paper. The classic to-do list can really work wonders for your willpower. Be sure to make your list of to-do's as specific as possible – as GTD guru David Allen puts it, you need to figure out your next action on something. So don't write: u201CPlan trip.u201D Write: u201CSearch for best airline fare.u201D And once you cross that off, your new next action would be u201CBuy tickets.u201D And so on.

7. Make a precommitment. You're doing a Paleo-diet and eating only things like meats and veggies. Your friends invite you out to a restaurant, and you think, u201CThat won't be a problem. I'll just get a steak.u201D But when you arrive and sit down, the waiter brings out a basket of warm, freshly baked rolls, and you shout, u201CHot damn! This must be what heaven smells like!u201D And in the blink of an eye, you've stuffed two rolls in your mouth.

What happened to you in there? You were so sure you could handle the temptation. But you fell victim to what's called the u201Chot-cold empathy gap.u201D When you're contemplating a scenario from your easy chair, you underestimate how difficult resisting the temptation will be in the heat of the moment.

To prevent the hot-cold empathy gap, you need to make a u201Cprecommitment,u201D the creating of a contingency plan so that when you're in the heat of the moment, and decide to give in, the option of giving in isn't available.

For example, if you're going to go shopping with someone, but you don't want to spend any money, don't bring a credit card, or bring a set amount of cash.

If you're trying to cut down on your alcohol consumption, keep your house spirits-free.

And if you're a Paleo guy, tell the waiter as soon as you sit down not to bring over the rolls at all (hopefully you have very understanding, or gluten-allergy-suffering friends).

8. Create routines.

If you have a set schedule for the day and a regular routine, you don't have to dither about what you should be doing at any given moment. u201CIt's 10:00 pm – time to start reading for 30 minutes before bed.u201D

9. Build self-awareness through monitoring.

Self-awareness simply means consciously knowing what you're doing each day, and it's tightly linked with self-control.

Most people are pretty good at hiding themselves…from themselves. They have only the vaguest idea of how much time they've wasted surfing the internet, how much food they've eaten, and what they've spent that month. But if you don't know where you're at in a certain pursuit, there's no way you'll reach your goal; you won't know what you need to change, how far you've come, and how far you have to go.

So look for ways to monitor, gather data, and u201Cquantifyu201D your life. Keep a food diary of what you eat each day. Weigh yourself every morning (while you may have heard weight loss gurus tell you this is a bad idea, studies have shown that those who weigh themselves daily are more successful at shedding the pounds). Use websites like Mint.com to keep track of your finances, and apps that track how you spend your time online. And so on. The more clear reminders you have of both your progress and your backsliding, the more likely it is you'll stay on track.

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