FYI Daily

Want More Willpower? Exercise It in Small Ways, Avoid Tempting Situations, and Eat Lunch

Last updated: Feb 08, 2012

Jedi Master Yoda

Whether you're trying to avoid another cookie or avoid snapping at a loved one, willpower plays a huge role in daily life. Luckily, even if you don't have a lot of natural willpower, there's plenty you can do to strengthen yours.

In an interview with The Guardian, Roy Baumeister, a social psychology professor at Florida State University, calls willpower "the key to success and a happy life."

Baumeister co-authored Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which aims both to explain the science behind willpower and to provide tips for strengthening it.

The author says willpower is "what separates us from the animals. It's the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation, and do what's right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It's central, in fact, to civilization."

And scientific experiments prove Baumeister's point. A few large, long studies have proved that kids who exercised willpower -- who opted, in one study, for two marshmallows after 15 minutes instead of one marshmallow immediately -- later had better SAT scores, higher-paying jobs, more stable relationships, better health, and less criminal activity.

So what do you do if your willpower isn't great to begin with?

Baumeister and co-author John Tierney, a science writer for The New York Times, argue that willpower is kind of like a "moral muscle." If you exercise your willpower, it gets stronger, even if those exercises are small and unrelated. One study showed that students who were asked to sit up straight whenever they remembered to do so did better in unrelated willpower tests in the lab.

Like a muscle, your willpower can also get tired. Another study showed that participants who successfully exercised their willpower, such as by refusing to eat a cookie, had a harder time with unrelated willpower tasks immediately after, like working on difficult mental puzzles or squeezing handgrips. Baumeister suggests being especially sure to avoid tempting situations while feeling sick or when PMSing, as those conditions naturally suppress willpower.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the willpower-muscle analogy even extends to glucose intake. A study revealed that Israeli judges granted parole in 65 percent of cases after lunch, but in almost no cases just before lunch. Similarly, eating healthy foods can help reduce food cravings and may help smokers quit smoking.

Some other good tips from Baumeister on strengthening willpower include forming good habits, writing a useful to-do list, committing publicly, and avoiding temptation when possible.

According to Baumeister, "People with low willpower use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises."

Image by Flickr user barron under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives licensing agreement.