Your Willpower Is a Muscle: Here’s How to Train It

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

When the going gets tough, what’s your move? Will you quit and take the easy way out or will you stick to your long-term goals? Roughly one third of New Year’s resolutions get abandoned by February because, let’s face it: old habits die hard. So if you’re in it to win it this year, first make sure your willpower is up to the task.

Mind Over Matter: Willpower 101

Willpower, or self-discipline, influences how individuals regulate attention, moderate emotions and control actions. Each time we make a decision — what to order for dinner, whether to hit the gym, or when to go to bed — we are exercising some level of self-control. And yes, we “exercise” willpower. It’s a form of mental energy that, like an overworked muscle, can get exhausted and stop functioning optimally.

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“Willpower is both physiological and psychological,” explains Michael Gervais, PhD, a sports psychologist to top athletes from the NBA, NFL, MLB and U.S. Olympic team, to name a few. To help these world-class athletes perfect their mental game and steel their wills for high-pressure competitions, it has to start from within, says Dr. Gervais. He describes exercising willpower as “an internal conflict, a standing civil war within ourselves.” Our “grittiness,” or ability to prevail despite discomfort, he says, depends on how we fuel our body and how well we can focus our minds.

Pump Up Your Power

Here are a few simple ways to mentally and physically prepare for whatever obstacles lie ahead.

1. Eat Well
Nutrition is essential for proper brain functioning, and brain cells working to maintain self-control require glucose, or sugar. When glucose is low, your brain responds strongly to immediate rewards (like the candies near the cash register) and pays less attention to long-term benefits or goals. To maintain a consistent level of glucose, eat balanced meals that have a significant amount of protein and fiber, which will keep you feeling fuller longer.

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2. Drink Up
Research shows that dehydration can negatively influence cognitive performance, so don’t slack on sipping H2O! Whether you’re at the gym, in class or at the office, it’s important to drink roughly one to four liters of water a day to keep your mind functioning properly. Research shows that we sometimes mistake thirst for hunger, so reach for a glass of water before grabbing a snack. Plus, since the body often gets dehydrated before our brains get the memo we’re thirsty, be sure to hit the water cooler before you start to feel parched.

3. Get Your Zzz’s
Did you know some of the best athletes have sleep coaches to help maximize shut-eye? Even if you don’t regularly decide what play to run after a snap, take a cue from the pros and prioritize sleeping six to eight hours each night. Being tired can significantly impair your judgment, reaction time and awareness, making sleep deprivation as dangerous as intoxication if you’re behind the wheel of a car. Also, research shows lack of sleep can alter appetite regulating hormones and metabolism, which can cause your body to have trouble processing glucose.

RELATED: 10 Unexpected Things That Can Ruin Your Sleep

4. Pause to Breathe
“Meditation can help decrease our over-activation and helps level, set or reset our physiological stress levels,” says Dr. Gervais. In recent scientific studies, relaxing the mind with meditation has been shown to strengthen our attention and increase productivity, along with other physical and psychological benefits. Set aside at least two minutes a day to relax the body and focus on natural breathing. And if you need help getting started, try one of these eight meditation apps that make it easy to unwind.

5. Flex Your Mind
Developing a resilient mind is essential to improving willpower. By accepting challenges and embracing change, says Dr. Gervais, we can best increase resiliency, or our ability to constructively respond in stressful circumstances. “Resiliency means being flexible and quickly bouncing back,” he says. The key is to guide your mind towards what you’d like to achieve instead of dwelling on setbacks or past failures.

At the end of the day, talent without willpower will only go so far. Having the self-control to balance immediate wants and needs against long-term goals is easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort. Developing strong willpower won’t happen after meditating one time, just as being a marathon runner won’t happen after jogging around the block. Establishing purposeful habits takes commitment, and strong willpower will prepare you with the grit necessary to follow through with your goals.

Plus, once you use your willpower to make your goals become habit, you’ll be able to work towards achieving new milestones. Don’t be another New Year’s Resolution statistic; put that willpower to work today!

Originally posted January 1, 2014. Updated January 2015. 

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