Most of us believe that willpower is some innate, magical quality that only a lucky few are born with enough of to reach the goals they set for themselves. But according to scientists and psychologists who specialize in this sort of thing, what we call “willpower” is actually just a one-two punch of self-control and smart decision–making strategies.
Here are five easy ways to improve your willpower.
Change how you define willpower.
You have it or you don’t, right? Wrong. Instead of thinking of willpower as a genetic gift, think of it as a game plan. “Instead of saying, ‘I have no willpower,’ ask yourself how to handle the situation,” says registered dietitian Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., and author of Diabetes Weight Loss—Week by Week. Think you just can’t give up your soda habit? Can’t stick to a gym routine? Can’t make yourself eat veggies? Think again. “Those who believe that willpower is not a limited resource continue to be able to tap into it when they need it. Believe in your willpower, find a few strategies that work for you to set yourself up for success, and voilá, you’ll have the willpower you need.
Set yourself up for success.
You’ve probably heard the adage that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. The same can be said for willpower—a little prep work can help you make healthy choices. “One of the best things you can do is create an environment that will help you be successful,” says Mitzi Dulan, R.D., coauthor of The All-Pro Diet. “Avoid buying chips and cookies. If you buy chocolate, buy bite-size.”
Respect your R&R.
In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood quips, “I never make big decisions so long after sunset and so far before dawn.” Sure, Underwood is a manipulative villain, but it’s not a bad strategy—lack of sleep can impair your ability to make smart decisions. “Both stress and sleep deprivation affect hormones that may impact our appetite and food choices,” Weisenberger says.
Keep your sugar in check.
It’s harder to stick to your diet when you’re hungry—not exactly breaking news, right? But it’s not just pure hunger that’s getting in your way, or else you’d be just as satisfied with a handful of carrots as a handful of cookies. The real problem is that glucose levels seem to play a big role in self-control, so the hungrier you get, the harder it becomes to choose healthy foods over calorie-laden comfort foods. Last year, Baumeister wrote in the APA Monitor on Psychology that low glucose levels can reduce self-control—so eat beforeyou’re famished if you want to improve your odds of resisting junk-food faves.
Focus on tomorrow’s goal, not today’s mistakes.
When you’re on a weight loss regimen, it’s easy to obsess over the occasional slip-up—a high-calorie snack here, a skipped workout there—and lose sight of your long-term goal. But the ability to rally after a setback may be more important than the ability to make virtuous decisions all the time. Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “grit” for people who stay focused on a long-term goal, come hell or high water.
So the next time you’re tempted to curse your lack of willpower, remember that self-control is a skill—and like any skill, you’ll screw up a few times while you’re learning it. What’s important is that you keep going.