Eight Ways to Develop Your Willpower

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People think of willpower as a skill or a personality trait you either have or don't. Some are trying to develop it, and others are convinced that it is useless.

Both of them are wrong. Everyone in their way.

What Is Willpower?

This is not a skill, an inborn habit, or a unique talent. According to the study of neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, willpower and the self-control related to it — is a natural body function. It was developed in the process of evolution as a survival element.

Early humans did not live alone. They united in tribes, hunted collectively, gathered berries, and defended themselves. They had to learn to coexist in such conditions, which meant getting used to the restrictions. For example, they had to learn not to take more food than allowed; otherwise, there would not be enough food for every member of the tribe.

In the process of getting used to such conditions, the human brain eventually learned to control instincts and desires.

All would be fine, but the world has changed significantly in recent centuries. New temptations like alcohol, shopping, computer games, the Internet, TV, and sweets appeared. It was hard to deal with them all. However, it is realistic to build willpower even in such conditions.

The Power of Three

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her book "The Willpower Instinct," suggests that willpower consists of three essential functions. Conventionally, she called them "I will," "I will not," and "I want." 

  • "I will" is the ability to do what needs to be done, even if laziness overcomes you.
  • "I will not" is a function that prevents following all impulses and decisions indiscriminately.
  • "I want" is the element of willpower, representing our true aspirations.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain controls all the above three elements. They work together to control our behavior.

Imagine walking through the store and suddenly seeing some curious thing on the counter. You like it so much that "I want!" is the only thing spinning in your head. 

This is where the prefrontal cortex comes into play. The "I will not" function will explain why you shouldn't buy this thing. At the same time, the "I want" function will also remind you that your fundamental goal is to save more money for your vacation.

If the price turns out to be prohibitively high, it will further cool your heat, facilitating the work of the prefrontal cortex. In such case you are more likely to show willpower and refuse to impulse purchase.

However, such a system only sometimes works that way. People do not know how to control their "I want," "I will," and "I will not" effectively. They tend to make impulsive decisions, ignoring brain signals.

Information overload is another reason for making impulse purchases. Information overloads our brain, and then impulse is the only way to make a decision.

What to Do?

If your brain signals do not reach you, learn to listen to them, i.e., develop the prefrontal cortex so that its impact becomes stronger. Then the ability to resist temptations will get stronger as well.

There are no specific methods like "take a contrast shower, take fish oil, and be happy." All willpower-developing instruments are quite general and require patience.

#1. Proper Motivation

When dieting, many are convinced that their main goal is to lose a couple of pounds. Does this initially encourage you to lose weight? Isn’t it all about a desire to fit into old jeans?

People sometimes get so obsessed with the process that they forget why they started doing something in the first place. Wrong goals lead to a loss of motivation. Without motivation, it's easier to ignore the intelligent advice your prefrontal cortex gives out.

#2. Constant Self-Analysis

Self-control and willpower disappear when you make decisions automatically. We are talking about simple daily choices that became automatic.

The story of Michelle, a student of the psychologist Kelly McGonigal might be a visual aid. She suffered from the need to check her mail constantly. To get rid of a bad habit, Michelle set herself a goal — to open the inbox no more than once an hour. Though, she failed to do that. She realized she had violated her plan only when she had already read a couple of e-mails. 

To correct the issue, Michelle started observing herself, trying to remember when the desire to open the inbox came. Thanks to this, she was able to control it. However, the habit did not completely disappear.

Then Michelle continued to observe and checked the mailbox whenever she felt anxious. She felt better after browsing through the e-mails. That is, the need to "live" in the mail turned out to be a way to relieve stress for Michelle.

Think how well you know yourself. Analyze your actions. Figure out what you do consciously and what you don’t. What do you think about at times like that? What situations most often mislead you?

The deeper you analyze your behavior, the better you will control your impulses, and you will be able to train your willpower effectively.

#3. Proper Sleep Patterns and Minimum Stress

Lack of sleep and stress negatively affect your self-control. When you feel tired or dissatisfied, you want to indulge your whims more.

This is easy to check. Watch your self-control when you feel stressed. How do you behave? Can you focus on what's important? Do you lose your cool quickly? Then compare the result with your behavior, but during more relaxed periods. Which of the two states is easier for you to work on yourself?

#4. Pomodoro Cycle

This is a good way to build willpower, overcome procrastination and finally do what you have been putting off for so long. The cycle consists of the following three stages:

  2. Put aside everything that distracts you, i.e., phone, books.
  4. Set a timer for 25 minutes and start working focused on your tasks.
  6. After 25 minutes of work, you have 5 minutes to rest. Spend this time without social media, games, or the Internet, as you risk getting "stuck." It would be better to drink tea or play with a cat. Then work again for 25 minutes. Repeat this cycle at least four times.

This approach allows for effectively "connecting" the brain to work. The brain has to focus for 25 minutes and then has 5 minutes to relax. Both modes are essential for high performance.

#5. Physical Activity

Sport beneficially affects the entire body, including the brain. Exercise is a good antidepressant. It also improves basic heart rate variability, which affects prefrontal cortex function.

Regular exercise contributes to the production of gray and white matter. The prefrontal cortex grows and develops due to this.

#6. Micro Control

It is possible to train willpower as a whole by learning to control yourself in something small. For example, you can constantly keep a straight posture or track expenses. Such little challenges slowly but surely teach you to track your habits.

You can take on something bigger upon learning to control yourself in small things. At the same time, you will not have a fear of failure as it will be eliminated by previous successful experiences, albeit a small one.

#7. Meditation

Meditation practices relax and unload the brain. It becomes easier to think and analyze. They also activate the prefrontal cortex, which helps it better control your actions during the day

It is enough to meditate for five minutes daily.

Just sit down, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Listen to the sound of your breath. Say "inhale" and "exhale" every time you inhale and exhale. This will help you get rid of unnecessary thoughts. Stay focused even if you get an itch. This is the way to learn not to follow every impulse automatically.

#8. Breathing Exercises

If you feel like you're about to get frustrated, try slowing your breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute.

By slowing down your breathing, you activate your prefrontal cortex and increase your heart rate variability. Already in a few minutes, calmness will come to you. You will have control of yourself and be able to deal with temptations. This is an excellent way to build willpower for those who usually act impulsively.