Ongoing research is always adding to the evidence that self-control and willpower are essential ingredients for a successful and fulfilling life.
The most famous and well documented willpower study of all time is the ‘marshmallow experiment’. This was an experiment carried out by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960’s.
He had an idea to test the willpower of children. Then follow them as they progressed into adulthood.
He placed a marshmallow in front of four year olds. Giving them the choice of eating the marshmallow right away, or if they could wait 15 minutes they’d be given two.
They recorded the results of how long the children took to eat the marshmallow, and those who resisted and opted for the two mallows.
Mischel and his team then monitored the subjects into later life. Finding that the children who held out for the extra marshmallow, went on to achieve a higher level of academic success, lower rates of divorce, and better health.
Another study tracked 1,000 children from birth until 32 years old. This study discovered that children with good self-control went on to have better health, reduced risk of substance dependency, better financial situations, and less criminal offences.
The study niched down further. Comparing pairs of siblings, and again finding the sibling in each pair with the lower self-control had a more troubled future.
While it’s hard to encourage young children to improve their willpower, there is a lot you can do as an adult to work on your willpower.
How to Improve Your Willpower
Don’t Overdo Testing Your Willpower
In line with the same principle as training muscles, you can over train your willpower. You wouldn’t hit the gym for some high intensity training, then go home and try to lift more heavy items. You need a good recovery period.
So as you learn how to do bouts of practicing self-control, you need to take appropriate breaks. The mind is a very powerful tool, so avoid stress and burnout at all costs.
Use Your Imagination
You can use your imagination is work on your willpower. We can use our minds to respond to images we dream up, just as we would to real experiences. If you image a peaceful, tranquil setting, you will feel your body responding to this vision.
Likewise if you image a worst case scenario situation where you’re in ganger, you’ll feel the heightened sense of alert as you would experiencing it for real.
This was highlighted in a study where participants were asked to watch a movie, with a bowl of sweets and chocolate placed nearby. One group of participants were asked to imagine they eaten as much as they wanted.
Another group of participants were asked to imagine they had not touched or eaten anything. While another group were asked to imagine they had decided to eat some later on after the movie.
The results were very interesting. The first group did eat more than the other groups. While the groups that had imagined they would eat later, or not eat at all, had a reduced appetite. They even added feedback that they felt less hungry the following day.
Simply Think about Something Else
Ok, maybe it’s not as simple as it sounds for everyone. But thinking about something else can push unwanted thoughts into the background. You may have been tested with as old adage; try not to think about something specific. Like a cat for example. Bet you’re thinking about a cat now, right?
Practice doing this exercise. But now, every time you feel a thought of a cat creeping in think of something else. Use related thoughts at first, like thinking of a dog instead. Every time you have a thought about giving in, think about something else. Start taking control of your thoughts.
Look back at Mischel’s experiment I talked about earlier. The children that resisted eating the marshmallow did so by distracting themselves. They were observed covering their eyes, fidgeting around on their chairs, or singing to themselves. All instinctual ways of distracting themselves from the marshmallow.
Have a Foundation of Good Habits
I have discussed how to break bad habits before. Having a foundation of good habits in place sets you up with a strong mind-set. Stress is a huge willpower killer. When you’re stressed, you are more likely to give in and fall back on bad habits.
You may have experienced this yourself. It’s not always a completely conscious decision, which is why having good habits instead of bad ones as a foundation are better.
Think about a scenario where you have a stressful situation approaching. Like an exam, or a job interview. Your future depends on you performing well, so you are in a stressful situation. Your body responds by releasing stress hormones like cortisol.
The cortisol hormone make you crave food, carbohydrates in particular. This is the main reason why some people turn to food when they are stressed. Also going a long way to explaining why long-term stress suffers are likelier to be overweight, have diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol is another way to lower cortisol levels. Again explaining why people turn to the bottle to sooth their stress. Every time you try to combat your stress by turning to a bad habit you compound the affects, increasing your chance of other health risks.
We have more knowledge and support than ever at our disposal. Use this to work on developing reliable, healthy habits. We can’t always avoid being stressed, but we can reduce our risk to further complications.
It saps a large amount of mental energy trying to be someone you’re not. We all feel pressure to fall into certain roles in different social circles. But it’s a massive drain on willpower trying to put another face on, loosen up and be yourself.
When it comes to willpower, people who give in to situations to appease others are at a disadvantage. Standing proud and being yourself shows strength, and resolve. So be proud of who you are, be headstrong, and you will find yourself gaining more willpower for when you need it.
If there is a certain takeaway from this article, it’s that willpower and self-control are linked to success.
Not only can willpower help us out in smaller, day to day tasks, having a good foundation of willpower has a positive effect on our futures.
So apply some mindful practice to strengthening your willpower. Learning how to improve your willpower will only bring you more success in the future.
Phil lives in England, UK, and has around 20 years experience as a professional life, career and executive coach. He started this blog to help others find and define their own self development journey. Blogging about a wide range of topics to help facilitate a better future.