If you had more willpower, just think of all the things you could achieve: your goal weight, financial security, six-pack abs, actually finishing a book before book club, world domination. Every day your self-control is tested in myriad ways. Whipped cream on your Mocha Frappuccino? Urrrrrm. That cute pair of shoes off Shopbop? Hmmmm. A glass of wine after a long day at the office? Alright, alright! Just give it to me! Glug, glug, glug. Sound familiar?
Luckily, psychologists are starting to better understand our ability (or disability) to delay gratification or resist temptation in favor of long-term goals. Some of their discoveries, as outlined in a recent report of the American Psychological Association, may surprise and even encourage you.
What is willpower?
Psychologists studying self-control describe a “hot-and-cool” system. A person’s cool system is cognitive and reflective, and the hot system is emotional and impulsive. Willpower fails when a “hot” stimulus (“OMG, Christian Bale is sitting at the bar next to me”) overrides the cool system (“but I’m happily married”). There goes your self-control.
So why do some people seem to have more willpower (Lance Armstrong) than others (the entire cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)? It seems people are more, or less, susceptible to their hot triggers, in a pattern that can persist throughout an entire lifetime. Some studies suggest this may be hard-wired in your brain.
Willpower can also be depleted. Like a limited resource, if you use all your self-control in one area of your life, you can sap your stores for other areas. For example, if just getting through your workday requires heroic discipline, you may have no restraint left when it comes to your diet. Your willpower is all tapped out.
How to flex your willpower muscle
The good news is that psychologists now believe willpower is like a muscle. The more it’s exercised, the stronger it becomes in the long run. Your biceps may be tired after ten curls and your tenth rep less effective than your first, but the next time you lift weights, you’ll be stronger and exhausted less quickly. So it is with exercising willpower.
Next: 6 tips to protect against willpower depletion