HEALTHY LIVING
12/04/2013 09:32 am ET

How To Maximize Your Willpower (And Be In Control Of Every Decision)

Xavier Arnau via Getty Images

We may know powerfully and innately what's most important to us, but when it comes to acting on our deepest values, many of us tend to get in our own way.

Self-control is something we all struggle with at one point or another, but it's an important key to both success and happiness. Lacking willpower keeps us in a cycle of instant gratification, making it difficult to change bad habits and to do the things we know are good for us.

According to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, willpower comes from a frame of mind that's focused on more long-term goals:

It's almost as if we have two minds. We have one brain that is very responsive to our immediate needs, and when we're in that mindset, we tend to make decisions that are inconsistent with our long-term goals. But we also have this other mindset that thinks about long-term consequences, remembers what our big values are, and takes a kind of expansive view on our lives and our choices. When we're in that mindset .... we tend to do things that make our future self happier and healthier, more productive and successful.

Willpower is what allows us to direct our energy and attention to what we truly care about -- and without it, there can be a big gap between our thoughts and values on the one hand, and our actions on the other.

Whether it's over-spending, over-eating, over-stressing or any other bad habit, the holidays can be a time when stress amplifies our struggles with self-control. Here are seven willpower hacks to help you take control of the things that matter most.

Avoid the object of temptation.

child marshmallows

In the now-famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, conducted in the late 1960s, children were put in a room by themselves with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them, and told that they could either eat the treat now, or if they waited until the researcher returned 15 minutes later, they could have two marshmallows. Most of the children visibly struggled to resist before giving in and eating the treat.

But the children who were most successful at not eating the treats were those who employed avoidance tactics, like covering their eyes or turning away. Turns out, "out of sight, out of mind," really can be effective, and not just for kids. A 2006 Cornell study of 40 adult secretaries found that they ate an average of 2.2 more candies out of an office candy jar when the jar was visible, and an average of 1.8 more when they were placed in close proximity to the desk, rather than two meters away. Another Cornell study from 2011 found that what we see first in the pantry or fridge is what we're most likely to eat.

While it may not be practical in a public setting (as an adult) to cover your eyes with your hands and walk away from the restaurant table to keep yourself from ordering dessert, you can practice avoidance by telling the server not to bring the dessert menu. (Or, if you're at home, make sure that box of cookies doesn't make it into your pantry.)

Give yourself a (conscious) break.

pastry

According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister's theory of willpower, there's a strong psychological reason that crash diets don't work. Our reserves of willpower are finite, says Baumeister, and when we use them all up depriving ourselves for extended periods of time, we'll crash even harder later. For this reason, diets that allow small treats or breaks tend to be more effective in the long-term.

"While wisely exercising self-control is a great way to build willpower, never giving yourself a break is a good way to deplete your resolve," psychologist Denise Cummins explained in a Psychology Today blog.

Take time to de-stress.

reading book

If you're struggling with food or alcohol cravings, stress and lack of sleep will only make the situation worse. Not only does stress deplete willpower, but high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body can also worsen cravings for sugar, carbs and alcohol (and these foods, in turn, increase cortisol levels in the body.

"When people are stressed, they tend to fall back on ingrained habits -- whether those habits are helpful or harmful," says Cummins. "Often, this is not a conscious choice. Rather, people resort to old habits without thinking because they are in a stressed state."

If you're looking to maximize your willpower, make time for scientifically-proven stress reducers like meditation, yoga, and exercise. It'll help you make the right decision -- rather than simply the automatic one -- when faced with a temptation.

Create an if-then equation.

decisions

Oftentimes when we think about stopping a bad habit, the only option we give ourselves is to never do it again. But when you're trying to give up a bad habit or exercise self-discipline towards achieving a personal goal, it's helpful to always be prepared with a Plan B in case you slip up. A New York University study of students trying to eat less junk food found that when the students thought through a tempting situation in advance and devised if-then plans for themselves (If I stay for that extra drink at the bar, I'll wake up early to go to yoga), they had an easier time making healthy choices.

"Devising a plan B helps you cope with situations that may undo you (cocktails on Friday night) because it shifts the decision-making moment from the danger zone (when the bartender asks if you would like one more mojito) to a point in time when you're in touch with what you want to achieve (before you even set foot in the bar)," writes Fitness Magazine.

Build positive rituals.

exercise

One way to summon the willpower to break a bad habit? Replace it with a good one, and turn that healthy habit into a daily ritual. Whether it's swapping your daily chocolate croissant for a little granola and yogurt or going on a walk after dinner every night instead of settling into the couch, building rituals is a powerful way to make good behaviors become automatic -- to the point where you don't even need to exercise willpower to make them happen.

"For the things that you decide matter … the only way to ensure that things that aren’t urgent but are important happen is to build rituals," The Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz told The Huffington Post. "Build highly specific behaviors that you do at precise times over and over again until you don’t have to use energy to get yourself to do it anymore -- until it becomes as automatic as brushing your teeth at night."

Remember to laugh.

laughing

Here's a good reason to take a YouTube break: Research has shown that watching a funny video can help to restore depleted willpower and help you get back on track with challenging tasks, Psychology Today reported.

When you do slip up, forgive yourself and forge ahead.

forgiveness tips

Maybe you indulged a little more than you anticipated on Thanksgiving, or maxed out your credit card during a recent shopping trip. We all slip up sometimes, and beating yourself up about your mistakes isn't going to help boost your willpower. Instead, exercising self-forgiveness and self-compassion after that moment of weakness can play a big role in boosting self-control down the line, McGonigal says. The first step is simply being mindful of the way you're feeling.

"Notice that you're feeling guilty or self-critical, maybe angry at yourself, and actually allow yourself to see those feelings," she says. "A big reason that people go from guilty to giving in again is that they just want to get rid of that feeling. It's overwhelming and they want to distract themselves from it."

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