I recently finished “The Willpower Instinct,” by Kelly McGonigal. Willpower is an interesting concept, one which many people struggle with. Some key takeaways for people looking to improve willpower include:
Multi-tasking decreases impulse control. (Texting while standing inline at the cafe, for instance, might lead to ordering a burger instead of a salad).
People with high degrees of heart rate variability also have high amounts of willpower reserve. Heart rate naturally increases slightly when you inhale and slows when you exhale. If your heart rate is “stuck” at a constantly elevated rate, this indicates you have less variability in your heart rate and correlates with less willpower.
Exercise (even in small doses) improves willpower.
Willpower is highest in the morning. If you are looking to make a lifestyle change, instead of making a blanket statement, (“I will cut out all sugars from my life and will never eat another piece of bread again”), maybe reframe your thought process to “I will eat only low sugar foods before 10AM.”
There is something called a halo effect than can cause us to rationalize giving in to temptation after we have behaved in a way we deem virtuous. People that begin an exercise program, for instance, also eat more to compensate for the calorie deficit. Similarly, when people on a diet order things like a salad, they are more likely to also order high calorie drinks. We reward ourselves for being “good.”
Many of these things can be improved by becoming self aware. Meditation techniques such as open monitoring and focused attention can improve our sense of self. Mindfulness training has been shown to be effective at improving willpower. (Observe that you are about to eat a cookie. This requires not multi-tasking and paying attention to what you are about to do. If you are trying to cut down on desserts, wait 10 minutes before eating the cookie and observe if you still want the cookie). There is also a website, www.futureme.org, where you can write a letter to your future self and have it e-mailed to you on a date you select. Research shows imagining your future self and talking to your future self about the things you hope to accomplish results in higher degrees of willpower today.