Three Studies Find Ways to Get an Extra Boost of Willpower & Self-Control

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external.

Remind yourself that challenging tasks can be energizing

In an interesting twist about the research on willpower as a limited resource, new research has shown that people who think of willpower as something not so easily depleted will work longer on a tough task than people who think it’s biologically limited.

But it’s not just that people simply have more willpower than others – further studies by that same Stanford team has shown that the “unlimited willpower” affect can be triggered. Participants were enrolled in a challenging learning task and primed with statements were limited, like “Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel tired such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task” or unlimited like “Sometimes, it is energizing to be fully absorbed with a demanding task”.

“As predicted, beliefs about willpower did not affect accuracy or improvement during the initial phases of learning; however, participants who were led to view willpower as non-limited showed greater sustained learning over the full duration of the task.” [Milller, et al, PLOS One, 2012]

The study shows that simply triggering the thought that “I will get energized by this challenging task” can help you power through an arduous activity.

Watch a funny YouTube clip

This one might sound silly, but research has shown that getting put in a good mood can enhance one’s ability to perform on tasks that require willpower. It might seem hard to get excited about doing something that’s going to require a lot of willpower. But it could be as easy as watching a funny youtube clip.

In a series of studies conducted by Dianne Tice at Florida State University (in collaboration with our friend Mark Muraven from strategy 1) participants were asked to resist temptation by not eating tasty cookies or suppressing a forbidden thought, then put into happy, neutral or sad moods via video clips or surprise gifts and then asked to perform another willpower draining task.

“After an initial act of self-regulation, participants who watched a comedy video or received a surprise gift self-regulated on various tasks as well as non-depleted participants and significantly better than participants who experienced a sad mood induction, a neutral mood stimulus, or a brief rest period.” [Tice, et al, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2007]

These findings offer an easy way to stretch your willpower when faced with a difficult task – take a minute and watch a funny YouTube video. If you don’t have any good ones, I suggest BuzzFeed’s hilarious videos that are all under 20 seconds.

Have you ever used strategies like these ones to boost your willpower when dealing with difficult challenges? WId love to hear your stories and comments below.

Photo credit: Flying Jenny

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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