How to increase willpower

Hi everyone,

Happy new year! This is a time for new resolutions so I thought I’d share tips from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s written by a leading willpower researcher and a NYT science writer.

The nature of willpower

Willpower is finite: it depletes as we use it

Willpower is universal
: there is only one reservoir that we use for everything, not different types of willpower for different tasks

Glucose restores willpower
: sugar acts faster but protein and healthy foods are better

Willpower is like a muscle
: we gain more as we use it

Symptoms of willpower depletion
: irritability, strong emotions, going on mental autopilot. If you feel these after exertion, rest and restore glucose by eating

e.g.: Parole board judges are more likely to grant parole right after meals (10am and 1pm) because granting parole requires exercising more judgment. If you want people to change their mind, get them after a meal

Procrastination kills willpower
: it drains us over time, like a debt with interest

Impulsiveness is very bad
: pursuing immediate desires interrupts long-term goals and causes a lot of trouble: stress, disease, debt, crime

“The two strongest predictors of success are intelligence and self-control.”

Sleep, healthy food, exercise, and order
 increase willpower

e.g.: A made bed or a clean desk creates a cue that subtly reinforces discipline


Avoid temptation: resisting desires depletes willpower for other tasks. Put temptations like unhealthy foods and cigarettes out of sight

Avoid important decisions when depleted
: planning and judgment require more willpower than routine tasks and thus are best done when you’re fresh

Avoid multi-tasking
: it increases stress and doesn’t increase productivity or efficiency

Set goals
: they pull us in the right directions

Make a to-do list
: just the act of creating a plan and logging tasks reduces procrastination. The Zeigarnik effect is the drain of willpower by ignoring unfinished tasks

Baby steps
: focus on small improvements. They increase motivation and add up quickly

Reward success
: give yourself treats for accomplishing goals, including some limited indulgence

e.g.: if you avoid smoking for a month, invest the cigarette money you saved into a purchase you’d like

: adamantly committing to an action and mentally blocking alternatives reduces the willpower needed to act later

Track progress
: log your progress to recognize small successes and increase motivation. Tracking technology like FitBit and Mint can help

Recognize bad habits and create good ones
: routines sink in and make it harder or easier to act. Shaking up routines can change habits

Budget willpower like money
: choose to invest it in a few important things rather than expect to accomplish everything

Give yourself buffer
: we chronically underestimate the time to complete tasks. Use your history to predict your budget, then add buffer. It’s less stressful to complete fewer tasks than have many unfinished

Allow yourself setbacks
: progress on long-term goals is often two steps forward, one step back. Expecting perfection leads to drop-out

Postpone difficult temptations
: if something is hard to resist, tell yourself you can indulge in it later. This frees willpower and sometimes diffuses the desire. “Vice delayed can turn into vice denied.”

Structure procrastination
: if you really don’t want to do one task, trick yourself into doing a different important one

Set a time limit on chores
: time-bound tedious tasks so you at least start and gain momentum

Commit to the nothing alternative
: tell yourself to do either a chore or nothing. The nothing option becomes more painful than doing the chore

”You can sum up the research literature with a simple rule: the best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.”


2 thoughts on “How to increase willpower

  1. Nesim May 3, 2012 / 11:48 am

    Great outline summary!

  2. Chris January 8, 2013 / 10:38 am

    I love it

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