How To Increase Your Willpower

Use these tactics to strengthen your resolve to live a healthy life

how to increase willpower

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When your willpower breaks down, it doesn’t reflect a lack of self-discipline so much as a force of nature. Especially when it comes to food, there are strong biological factors we’re all working against. As Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains, self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain - the section that’s most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts.

Pleasure, on the other hand, resides in the brain’s most primitive portion, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. And while that brain circuitry evolved to encourage life-prolonging desires like eating and sex, says Dr. Shrand, we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether it’s an illicit drug, chocolate, or buying expensive purple peep-toe boots—even when the more evolved part of our brain tells us we’ll quickly regret it. So you can see why getting the rational side of your brain to win out takes a little work.

Here are some foolproof ways to keep yourself fighting those natural instincts in the name of willpower.

Muscle up your willpower…
The interesting thing about willpower is that it’s transferable. If you can demonstrate determination in one area, you can often show it in another arena as well. In an experiment at the University at Albany–State University of New York, researchers asked 122 smokers who were trying to quit to exert extra self-control for two weeks, either by avoiding sweets or by squeezing on a grip-strengthener for as long as they could twice a day. Another group either did math problems or kept a diary. In the following month, 27 percent of those who were diligent about practicing their self-control exercise successfully kicked their cigarette habit, compared with just 12 percent of volunteers who’d been given a task that didn’t call for self-control.

To try this at home, squeeze a grip-strengthener (available at sporting-goods stores for under $10) or a rubber ball until it becomes uncomfortable, then hold your grip as long as you can. Repeat at least twice a day and see if practicing self-control rubs off in other areas of your life, helping you to keep your hands off foods you normally can’t resist.

…And visualize to boost it
That primitive-cravings center in the brain is highly susceptible to visual cues, explains Tufts University psychologist Christopher Willard, Psy.D. Draw on the strength of images by putting a photo of a younger, thinner you on the fridge or mirror, or by hanging a pair of skinny jeans on the closet door to remind yourself of what you’re working toward.

Give yourself a break, occasionally
As with a muscle, push too hard and you’ll damage your willpower. “If you’re very hungry, I can’t imagine that any amount of willpower will keep you from eating a cupcake,” says Mark Muraven, Ph.D., psychologist and author of the quit-smoking study. And even if you’re not hungry, expecting too much of yourself can put you in the danger zone. Dieters who go cold turkey on everything often feel overwhelmed, and that can sabotage willpower.

Remember your accomplishments
Whenever you feel your resolve waver, think about what you’ve accomplished in the past. “People beat themselves up about still needing to lose the baby weight or no longer going to yoga class. But they overlook the long list of things they have done that required major self-discipline, like building a nest egg or sticking with the computer training they needed in order to get a better job,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. “Write down 100 things you’re proud of, right down to ‘I get out of bed when I don’t want to.’ It’ll remind you how much willpower you really have.”

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