You’re two weeks into your diet and you’re inhaling a large pizza for one. You’ve missed your last three workouts. Hey, a person’s only got so much willpower.
You’re right. Research shows that willpower is partly genetic; there are physical differences in the brains of strong-willed people and their weak-willed counterparts. Lucky for the latter, your willpower is like every muscle you inherited from mom and dad — able to grow stronger. But you need the right workout and fuel to make it happen.
Here are science-approved ways to strengthen your willpower — and your health.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Practice does make perfect. A recent study from the Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center found that when you “exercise” your willpower by practicing self-control — munching on veggies even when the candy aisle is calling your name or showing up to a gym class you’d rather skip — you actually strengthen your willpower in all areas of life.
WORK UP TO IT?
When you give in to (cheesy, carb-filled) temptations, it’s because your willpower is running on empty. The easy way to fill it up? Never let it hit E in the first place. If you overwork your willpower, you can’t control yourself later on — even if the tasks at hand seem completely unrelated.
In one study, dieters were given ice cream after watching a movie. The participants who were instructed to stifle their emotions (happy, sad or otherwise) during the film ate more ice cream than those who didn’t. By holding back emotions during the movie they had sucked their willpower dry. The solution? Start small, according to lead study researcher Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. Studies show that people who make small changes — like improving their posture or brushing their teeth with their opposite hand — can up their self-control in as little as two weeks.
Finally, a “healthy” excuse for TV time. Studies from the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addiction has found that when people watch repeat episodes of their favorite shows, they instantly have more self-control than those who don’t. Researchers believe that watching reruns taps the surrogate relationship you’ve formed with their characters, and since you already know what’s going to happen, you can just sit back and enjoy it, which helps to restore your energy. If the pantry tempts you come midnight, stick to reruns before bed. Remember: This only works with reruns. It’s not an excuse to finally watch the first season of “Downton Abbey.” It’ll just get you worked up and sap your energy.
Self-control lags when you’re caught up “in the moment” and are distracted from your long-term goals, Vohs says. To keep a comfy couch from distracting you from your goal to hit the gym four days a week, make sure you have plenty of reminders wherever you are. While the long-standing tradition involves taping unflattering pictures on the fridge, writing down your goals and keeping them with you also works.
Or treat yourself to a piece of jewelry that you wear all the time to remind you of your goals and commitment to them. Reminding yourself to pause and think things through can help break even the most unhealthy automatic habits.
Test YOUR MEMORY
What do willpower and memory have in common? Gray matter. In one Virginia Tech study, researchers asked patients at a substance abuse facility to memorize series of numbers, words and letters in games that targeted their working memory. After a month of memory games, participants had a 50 percent decrease in their rate of delay discounting (that’s science talk for swapping long-term rewards for instant ones).
By building up underlying cognitive circuits (mostly in the prefrontal cortex), memory exercises may help people resist instant rewards and stay locked on their long-term goals, according to researchers. Check out lumosity.com for online memory games, or dig out the old Memory card game to play with your kids.
EAT A SNACK
Your stomach won’t be the only thing that’s fueled. Research shows that restoring blood glucose levels helps to replenish self-control. Glucose fuels many brain functions, and when its levels drop, so does your ability to focus and control impulses. Luckily, eating a small something every few hours can level out blood sugar so your brain has energy to stay in self-control mode. While carbs can raise your glucose levels quickly, your body burns through them quickly. Pair them with some protein so that your willpower doesn’t ride a blood-sugar roller coaster, suggests Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.”
TAKE A NAP
If you are going to test your willpower, do it when you’re well-rested. Sleep improves brain function and self-control. In one study of drug addicts, McGonigal found that those who slept for only seven hours a night had higher relapse rates than those who scored an extra hour of shut-eye a night. If you can’t always squeeze in a solid night’s sleep, consider a midday power nap. Research shows it can reduce stress, improve mood, restore focus and quell the willpower drain that happens as the day wears on.
CHEER ON OTHERS
Forget yawns — willpower is what’s really contagious. Just by observing someone else pursue a goal, you’ll be motivated to pursue one, McGonigal says. Whether or not you are into group fitness, you can still take an interest in your friends’ and family’s goals and encourage them in achieving them. The trick even works with surrogate friends and family, McGonigal says. Watching the stars of your favorite reality show work hard to overcome obstacles — whether it’s getting healthy on “The Biggest Loser,” cooking the perfect dish on “Chopped” or designing a runway showstopper on “Project Runway” — can increase your personal willpower.