Six ways to grow your willpower

An image showing a man resting

You may have heard the saying: ‘willpower is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.’ This is true, but it’s only part of the story. There are two more key things you need to know about willpower...

First, we essentially have a single source of willpower – one shared resource to draw on for all the self-control challenges we face in any given day. For example, we use much of the same willpower resource for resisting biscuits as we do for keeping our cool under stressful circumstances. And it’s the same resource for keeping going with the goals we’ve set ourselves. Resisting biscuits that are in front of us actually depletes our willpower for many other challenges, so we have less ability to maintain self-control in other situations later on.

Secondly, willpower needs rest and nourishment after it’s been used. If we don’t do things to restore our willpower, it simply continues to get weaker and weaker. Anything that lifts our mood, gives us physical energy or reduces stress will restore and strengthen our willpower.

With this knowledge in mind, here are six ways to keep your willpower strong, consistent and sustained over the long term.

1. Identify the scenarios that sap your willpower

Anything that causes you stress or makes you exert self-control in order to resist temptation uses up your willpower. Of course, it’s not possible to avoid everything that causes stress or requires self-control, but think about your day-to-day interactions. See where you could remove unwanted situations that draw on your willpower reserves. Are there particular occasions or activities that drain you? If so, see how you can work around these, or get help to work through them, so you’re not taking them on alone.

Similarly, make sure there aren’t needless temptations in your environment. For example, keep your willpower strong by simply not buying the foods you are trying to avoid. This will prevent a later drain on your self-control reserves. 

2. Keep your blood glucose level stable

Exerting self-control is a very energy-intensive process for your body and mind. When your blood glucose (sugar) level dips, you have less of the physical energy needed to power your self-control. In order to keep your willpower strong and consistent, you need to keep your blood glucose level stable.

The way to do this is to follow a healthy and well-balanced diet, and not to skip meals. When your diet isn’t properly balanced, your blood glucose level shows peaks and troughs. This leaves you vulnerable to temptation and more likely to give in to the things you are trying to avoid. Also, be aware that eating sugary snacks won’t work to balance your blood glucose level. These foods cause the extreme peaks and troughs that throw your willpower out of kilter.

Pasta salad

3. Watch the right kind of TV

Research shows that watching re-runs of your favourite TV shows has a restorative effect on willpower. This is likely to be because your favourite re-runs will generally relax and calm you. Also, watching any kind of reality TV programme that shows someone pursuing a goal or achieving something big and inspiring actually boosts willpower. It seems willpower can be contagious!

4. Make mindfulness a daily practice

Mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment – can help your willpower in three key ways.

First, it creates ‘cognitive space’. That is, it helps you calm your mind and stops it feeling so ‘busy’. Busy minds find it much harder to resist temptation than quiet and calm minds.

Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, says: ‘When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices.’

Secondly, mindfulness speeds up both physical and mental recovery time from stress and so replenishes willpower reserves.

And last but not least, practising mindfulness changes the way your brain notices and thinks about things. Mindfulness can help to keep the bigger picture in focus, helping you to resist short-term temptations and stay on track towards your long-term ambitions.

Young woman deep in thought

5. Sleep well

Tiredness makes you vulnerable to temptation. This is because self- control takes a lot of energy, and when your body is sleep deprived, it doesn’t have enough energy reserves left to power self-control. Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do to re-energise and recharge your willpower.

Dog sleeping on bed

6. Be kind to yourself and those around you

Be compassionate – to yourself and to others. Practising self-control and resisting temptation is really difficult and effortful. Your brain and body aren’t suited to life in this modern environment, where processed and sugary foods are so accessible. It’s normal to have a few slip-ups when building your willpower, So, if you make a mistake, be kind to yourself, dust yourself off and get back on track.

Research has shown that those who are compassionate with themselves and simply keep going after a little slip-up are better at achieving positive lifestyle change over the long run. They are more likely to eat better, exercise more, get more restful sleep and feel less stressed.

Watch my behaviour change webinar for more tips and insights on how to reach your health goals.

Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK

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