Exerting willpower to build new habits or resist temptation often seems like too much hard work.
You’ve had a stressful day at work, navigating a dozen complex decisions to juggle the project budget and reallocate team resources, and you’re still not sure there is enough money or people to deliver on time. Tempers were frayed and several people disagreed with your approach. You’d started the day off well by engaging the team in exploring solutions rather than focussing on problems, a new behaviour you are committed to practice. As the day wore on it got harder to focus on eliciting other people’s ideas and you ended up telling them what you think they should do. By 6pm you feel emotionally depleted, skip the gym, duck in for some retail therapy and max your credit limit, say yes to pizza even though you’re on a diet.
We’ve all been there!
The science of self-control
Researchers have found willpower—our capacity to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or rewards—tends to diminish over the course of a day, especially when we’ve been engaged in making difficult decisions or supressing our emotions. Our brain’s thinking power and blood-glucose levels are reduced. We are more vulnerable to acting impulsively. If we reach for chocolate when we feel unhappy, it’s more likely because we’ve run low on our limited supply of resolve than because we’re in a bad mood.
Research shows some people are naturally better at reminding themselves about benefits and goals while others are more prone to quick, reflexive responses that override rational thinking (as in this classic experiment with children and adults).At the same time, the capacity to delay gratification and engage self-control can be strengthened.
Researchers describe willpower as a muscle. While it gets fatigued from overuse, consistent exercise can strengthen it over time. Practicing self-control daily over the course of two weeks or two months, for example an exercise or skill building programme, helps build new habits and equips us with stronger willpower in other areas. “Once a good habit is in place” assures Dr Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and expert in self-control and decision-making and author of Willpower, “you’ll no longer need to draw on your willpower to maintain the behaviour. Eventually healthy habits will become routine and won’t require making decisions at all.”  
Researchers describe willpower as a muscle. While it gets fatigued from overuse, consistent exercise can strengthen it over time.
Strategies to boost willpower
Here are five strategies for strengthening self-control to rewire habitual patterns.
- Avoid temptation—turn your IM light off when you need to finish that report, keep the chocolate in the drawer, take a new route to work to bypass the patisserie or your favourite boutique.
- Plan ahead—set ‘implementation intensions’ to help you to make decisions in the moment and circumvent the need for willpower, eg if a friend says let’s go for pizza, suggest a great health food bar you know.
- Practice willpower—start a daily programme to change a behaviour, any behaviour, even something as simple as brushing your teeth for two weeks with the other hand can teach willpower and rewire neural connections.
- Focus on one goal—studies show people who plan specific steps and actions toward one goal manage better than those who try to multitask with too many or don't plan at all .
- Tap inner motivation—if it fits your values, would help others or offer a reward that means something to you personally, you are more likely to persist than if someone else expects you to change
Practicing and applying thinking power to learn new behaviours expands your options and increases flexibility. What’s more, people with stronger self-control—innate or learned—have higher self-esteem and lead more positive, successful and healthy lives.
We teach people how to harness their willpower and develop new habits to be more productive at work and in life. For more strategies download our free eBook on Leading with the Brain in Mind.
- Baumeister, R, and Tierney, J (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin.
- Weir, K (2012). "What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control." American Psychological Association.
- Dalton, A, and Spiller, S (2012). "Too Much of a Good Thing: The Benefits of Implementation Intentions Depend on the Number of Goals." Journal of Consumer Research, October.