7 Ways to Build Willpower That Creates Success

Science has linked childhood willpower to success in life. But even if you didn't develop self-control as a kid, it's not too late.

7 Ways to Build Willpower That Creates Success Photo by Lia Koltyrina / Shutterstock.com

It’s about that time of year when New Year’s resolutions waver and goals seem out of reach. But that doesn’t have to be the case if we learn how to build our willpower.

Some people appear to be born with a lot of determination. For the rest of us, it is possible to cultivate willpower. And that’s a good thing, because willpower can spell the difference between success and failure.

Decades ago, researchers at Stanford University demonstrated this with a study that started by asking children to sit in front of a tasty-looking marshmallow. The children were given a simple choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two. Some waited for the bonus marshmallow, but some did not.

Professor Walter Mischel then followed the children through their lives. According to Bloomberg Businessweek

Tracking the kids over time, Mischel found that the ability to hold out in this seemingly trivial exercise had real and profound consequences. As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships — even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.

Even if you haven’t learned self-restraint so far, it’s not too late. Here are seven proven ways to build willpower:

1. Remove temptations

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Make it easier to meet goals by looking for ways to reduce the number of difficult decisions you must face each day. For example:

  • Set up automatic transfers from your paycheck to a high-paying savings account if you’re trying to save more money.
  • Avoid drinkers, smokers or big spenders if you’re quitting those habits.
  • Hang out with friends whose lives align with your goals.

If your goal is to destroy debt, then carry only cash, no credit cards. Stash your plastic where it’s hard to get it, or cut the cards up. Avoid shopping malls.

2. Spend your reserves strategically

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We have a limited amount of self-control at any one time, studies have found. So, use self-control strategically. When it’s consumed, there’s less to apply to other goals.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, told USA Today that when people use energy to achieve one goal, “they have less of it available to use toward achieving other goals.”

3. Have a snack

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Studies show a relationship between glucose levels (also called blood-sugar levels) and self-control, with levels falling among test subjects after they use self-control. They also found that restoring glucose levels may help replenish self-control. To help you fight the urge for sugary treats, eat small healthy meals or snacks throughout the day to keep your glucose levels steady.

4. Procrastinate — on purpose

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When you’re just about to give into temptation, talk yourself into waiting just a few minutes more. Distracting yourself even briefly helps you forget your struggles.

For example, when you feel like a shopping spree, visit online stores you love, carefully selecting “purchases” and putting them in your online cart. Imagine how they’ll look, how they’ll work with your other clothes and where you’ll wear them.

Then, distract yourself by leaving the computer and getting involved in other things. When you come back to the computer, any urge to buy is likely to have passed. Empty the cart and leave the online store, having satisfied the hunter-gatherer impulse.

5. Chunk it up

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Manage temptations and tough jobs by cutting them into small chunks. Successful dieters, for example, often buy treats such as potato chips, cookies and ice cream in single-serving packages, even when that’s more expensive. Defined boundaries give you a chance to stop and pull back before you overindulge.

You can also break up a hated job — such as preparing your taxes — into bite-sized pieces. Knock off one bit, then take a reward or a break. Or spread pieces over several days.

6. Enlist the power of habits

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Habits begin with conscious choices. Train yourself by exercising self-restraint repeatedly until it’s not a choice, but a habit.

7. Get free help

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Immerse yourself in others’ advice, input and support. You don’t have to buy into everything you hear. “Take the best and leave the rest,” say folks in Alcoholics Anonymous and other free, effective self-help groups.

It is good to be around people wrestling with the same difficulties and working toward similar goals. Their support helps you focus not on current temptations but on building your future self.

What strategies and goals do you use to build willpower? Share them by commenting below or on .

Marilyn Lewis
Marilyn Lewis
After a career in daily newspapers I moved to the world of online news in 2001. I specialize in writing about personal finance, real estate and retirement. I love how the Internet ... More

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