Six ways to make the most of your willpower

Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK
02 August 2018

Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated that you can’t stop reaching for the biscuits instead of a piece of fruit? Or checking your emails and surfing the web when you should be working on an important task? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us feel that we lack willpower when it comes to doing what we know we should be doing.

Cakes in a shop window

Willpower is essentially a competition between two systems in our brain. One system directs our behaviour towards our long-term goals, such as quitting smoking to be healthier. The other wants immediate rewards, like satisfying a physical craving for a cigarette. The system that wins can depend on factors like our stress level, energy, mindset and environment. In our busy lives where temptation is everywhere, often it’s the latter system that triumphs, leaving us feeling discouraged.

But research shows there are simple things we can do to make the most of our willpower, helping us to regulate our behaviour towards our long-term goals. Here are six evidence-based tips to help set you up for success and maintain your willpower over the long run.

1. Sleep, eat, move

We know that eating a nutritious diet, exercising and sleeping well are the pillars for a healthy lifestyle. But if we don’t get these fundamentals right, our willpower can be compromised before we even face a self-control challenge.

Getting less sleep than our bodies need means that we’re more vulnerable to temptation. Research shows that being sleep-deprived makes us more impulsive and risky in our decisions, and less able to focus well and manage our emotions. Rather than keeping our cool with a testing colleague, our willpower is more likely to fall short so that we’re short-tempered and jump to conclusions.

For many of us, eating well or exercising consistently can be its own willpower challenge. But keeping our energy levels stable through our diet, and lifting our mood from regular physical activity can really help us to stick to our long-term goals. Another reason to persevere with healthy lifestyle changes!

2. Think positively and take time to pay attention

Our beliefs about our own willpower affect whether we keep going or give up with our goals. If we think of our willpower as unlimited, then it can be. If we expect ourselves to fail, then we’re much more likely to. What’s more, when our minds are preoccupied, our impulses and emotions often guide our behaviours. However, we can calm our busy minds through meditation, mindfulness and relaxation. Practising mindfulness regularly – paying attention to the present moment – can help us to be more self-aware. This is a useful tool when it comes to focusing on the bigger-picture goal, resisting short-term temptations and keeping our willpower in check. By pausing in the moment we can recognise that what we do next is our choice.

3. Prepare for the environment

Identify the scenarios where your willpower is likely to be tested. Of course, it’s not possible to avoid everything that requires self-control. But thinking about our day-to-day interactions and planning ahead can help to reduce stress in these circumstances. Perhaps you always walk past a delicious-smelling bakery on your route to work, and you’ve fallen into the habit of buying something most days. Try changing the route to avoid this and remove the temptation, or enlist the help of a supportive friend by walking with them to break the habit and stay accountable.

4. Set positive, specific plans and goals

If it’s not possible to eliminate the tempting cues from the environment, we can remove unnecessary decisions in our day. A good way to do this is to make a plan for what we’ll do in the situations that we know will challenge our self-control, to keep behaviours aligned with our long-term goal. Create an overall plan by using ‘if/when … then’ statements that detail the when, where and what and how. For example, if the goal is to lose weight:

If I’m out for dinner and when I get the dessert menu, then I’ll order a mint tea

When it’s 3pm and if I’m craving a biscuit, then I’ll have an apple

In addition, making sure our goals are positive ones, by using ‘I will or I could’ rather than ‘I won’t or I don’t’ helps us to see what we’re gaining rather than what we’re losing out on.

5. Celebrate your wins

It’s important to acknowledge success on your journey to maintain your willpower in the long term. Perhaps the goal is to save up money for a holiday, so rewarding yourself for hitting a monthly savings target will boost your morale. But remember, we shouldn’t reward ourselves with the exact thing that we’re trying to avoid, as this will set our willpower back. Have a relaxing bath, or call a friend to tell them of your success, instead.

6. Be kind to yourself

Practising self-control and resisting temptation is really difficult! Our brains and bodies haven’t been designed to live in this modern, information-overloaded world, where everything is so accessible to us and tempting. It’s normal to have slip-ups and act against our better judgment. But lacking self-compassion can damage our willpower further. Rather than being strict, being kind and forgiving ourselves is key to making sure that we get back on track and don’t give up completely. Those who are compassionate with themselves and keep trying after a mistake are better at achieving positive lifestyle changes over the long run.

Key points:

  • Use sleep, exercise and nutrition to support your willpower.
  • Think of your willpower as infinite, and use mindfulness and meditation so that you can stay calm and focus on the moment.
  • Shape your environment so that your willpower isn’t tested.
  • Set goals, create plans, commit and stay accountable.
  • Celebrate your wins with something else that makes you smile.
  • Don’t give up if you have a slip up, forgive yourself and try again.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Lauren Gordon
Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK

What would you like us to write about?


Health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care.