By Eric Barker
July 24, 2014

In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities.

But what’s the one thing surveys show most everyone will admit they have a problem with?

Self-control.

And who is most likely to give in to temptation?

Ironically, it’s the people who think they have the most willpower.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

So how can we really increase willpower? What does science have to say?

I’ve posted a lot about the subject — from research to interviewing the foremost expert on the subject. Let’s round it all up and make it useful.

Here are 7 ways you can increase your own willpower and live a better life:

 

1) “Keystone” Habits Are A Magic Bullet

Everyone wants a magic bullet. One pill that fixes everything. The closest thing in the area of willpower is what are called “keystone habits.”

The primary one is exercise. What’s so special about running or lifting weights? It doesn’t just give you more discipline at the gym…

It also makes you eat better. And helps you use your credit card less. And makes you more productive at work. And more patient with loved ones.

Exercise leads people to create other, often unrelated, good habits:

Going to the gym is too much for you? Try food journaling. Just write down everything you eat, every day. It’s another powerful keystone habit.

(For more on why this works, go here.)

So if you’re going to do anything, keystone habits get the best bang for your buck. What else should you do every day?

 

2) Do Important Things Early

Leading self-control researcher Roy Baumeister, has found that willpower is limited.

It’s highest early in the day but as we make more decisions, it empties like a gas tank.

This leads to a simple answer: do the most important things first. As the day goes on it will only get harder to face big challenges.

When do most self control failures happen?

At night. Roy explains:

(To see the schedule that the most productive people use, click here.)

So your willpower is limited. What else can this tell us about the best way to use it?

 

3) Improve Willpower By NotUsing Willpower

Productivity guru Tim Ferriss says willpower is overrated. We have a limited amount of it, so relying on it is a bad idea.

Research shows we don’t use much willpower when something is a habit, when our behaviors are automatic.

How do you build good habits? Here’s a fantastic interview with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit:

Building new habits is too hard, you say? Then try this:

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

Hide the cookies and put your running shoes next to the bed.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

People who think they have a lot of willpower expose themselves to more temptation — and eventually cave. So don’t rely on willpower.

(More on building good habits here.)

Now comes the part where I contradict myself…

 

4) Use Willpower To Build Willpower

I know, I know… I just told you not to use willpower, now I’m telling you to use willpower. What gives?

Baumeister compares willpower to a muscle. When you use it too much, it gets tired and gives out.

But by exercising it, over time it gets stronger. So you don’t want to rely on willpower for everything. You want to rely on habits.

But you want to make sure to tap into willpower a bit every day, always pushing yourself a bit to grow that muscle over time.

How simple can your daily self-control exercise be? Merely working on your posture can produce willpower benefits.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

(For more self-control exercises go here.)

Simple is good, right? Want to know other crazy simple things that can help? Want to improve willpower in your sleep?

 

5) Fundamentals: Eat And Sleep

Yes, improving willpower is as easy as eating and getting enough sleep.

When I asked Roy Baumeister the easiest way to quickly boost self-control he simply replied, “Just eat something.

Want to wake up full of willpower? It’s as easy as getting more sleep at night.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

(More on how to get a great night’s sleep here.)

Eating and sleeping not easy enough for you? Here’s something even easier.

 

6) Procrastinating Can Improve Willpower

Ever been so lazy you put things off that you actually enjoy? This can actually boost self-control.

You don’t even have to say no to every temptation to gain discipline. Just postponing them can help too.

Research shows telling yourself “Not now, but later” is far more powerful than “No, you can’t have that.”

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

Anything other than just giving in helps strengthen your willpower muscle.

Delay, distraction, or even caving in a defined way can help increase discipline.

(Learn how to beat procrastination here.)

Okay, now’s the time for the bad news…

 

7) You’re Going To Screw Up… But That’s Okay

You’re going to give in to temptation. That’s not defeatist; it’s reality. But what matters is what you do after.

Feeling the urge to beat yourself up over your lack of willpower? Don’t do it. No Mea Culpas are necessary.

Blaming yourself reduces self-control. Showing self-compassionincreases it.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

People who cut themselves slack go on to keep trying — and end up succeeding.

(For more on increasing your resilience, click here.)

So how does all of this fit together?

 

Sum Up

Give the 7 a try:

  1. “Keystone Habits” Are A Magic Bullet
  2. Do Important Things Early
  3. Improve Willpower By Not Using Willpower
  4. Use Willpower To Build Willpower
  5. Fundamentals: Eat And Sleep
  6. Procrastinating Can Improve Willpower
  7. You’re Going To Screw Up… And That’s Okay

I’m sure to some people this sounds hard and lonely. But it doesn’t have to be a solitary thing.

Relationships improve willpower: the best way to accomplish any change is by having a supportive group of friends around you.

And the reverse is true as well: willpower improves relationships:

Willpower is one of the first steps in improving any area of life — and it’s good to know that self-control isn’t selfish.

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Related posts:

How To Be Resilient: 8 Steps To Success When Life Gets Hard

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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