Stay motivated! 5 willpower secrets to help boost your self-control

We all have good and bad days when it comes to resisting temptation. These smart expert tips can help...
Published March 10, 2017


  1. Use your willpower wisely

We tend to think of willpower as an endless store of strength that we should be able to summon up at any time. But a US study shows that willpower is actually a limited resource with a relatively brief shelf life. In Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney (Penguin Press, $32.50), Baumeister and other researchers asked a group of women to watch a weepy film. Half of them were told to keep a lid on any sad emotions, while the others were encouraged to sniffle away freely.

After watching the tearjerker, all the women were offered ice cream. They discovered that those who had used up their willpower holding back the tears ate more ice cream than those who’d had a good cry – their willpower stores had been emptied. So, any time you have to fight an impulse or filter out distractions, you use up a little more of your willpower. 

TOP TIP: Plan ahead and tap into your weekly SmartPoints allowance on the days when you know your willpower will be sapped by other demands, such as a long meeting, or hosting a kids’ sleepover. That way, you’ll be able to fully enjoy what you like as you won’t be putting an unrealistic expectation on yourself to resist it.

  1. Meditate to concentrate

Finding it hard to apply yourself at work? Take time out for a spot of meditation. Neuroscientists have discovered that regular short spells can lead to improved self regulation – the exact quality you need to stop surfing the net/making endless cups of coffee and actually finish that project!

TOP TIP: Try this five-minute meditation exercise. Sit in a chair with your feet on the ground, your hands resting in your lap and your eyes closed. Focus on your breathing, silently saying ‘inhale’ as you breathe in and ‘exhale’ as you breathe out. When your mind wanders (which it will!) simply bring your attention back to your breathing. Practice coming back to your breath again and again. If you do this each time you struggle to stick at a tricky task, it will soon become second nature.

  1. Learn how to ‘empty’ your head

When we’re distracted, we’re more likely to give in to temptation. A study by US researchers Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin found that students trying to memorize a long phone number were 50 per cent more likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit salad than those only memorizing a couple of digits. So if your mind is teeming with half-completed to-do lists, you may be less likely to make sensible decisions.

TOP TIP: Before heading out to buy lunch, ‘empty’ your head by writing down every thought, task or worry on your mind – no matter how small. ‘When we try to ignore unfinished trains of thought, our unconscious keeps fretting about them, which leads to a state of split attention,’ says Roy F Baumeister. ‘By writing these thoughts down, you acknowledge them, which leaves your mind free to make clear decisions.’ Like choosing a healthy lunch, for example!

  1. Watch out for the halo effect

‘Do you ever feel so good about making a healthy choice that you “reward” your iron willpower with an indulgent treat later?’ asks psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It (Avery, $26.99). ‘This is known as “the halo effect” and can lead us to overeat 

after the gym or order a virtuous main course, then squeeze in a creamy dessert!’ Our mind plays tricks on us when it comes to assessing what we think we ‘deserve’ or have ‘earned’.

TOP TIP: Start a paper chain, adding one link for each positive willpower decision you make. This will help you visualise how each choice either supports or cancels out the one before. For example, turning down that last drink at the end of a night might be link one of your paper chain. Fitting in that Zumba class could be link two, and making a healthy meal for dinner could be link three. Once you break the chain with a negative willpower decision, you’ll need to start a new chain from scratch. Try to make each of your chains a little longer than the last. This visual reminder may help to discourage you from cancelling out your good decisions with unhelpful ones.

  1. Take your ‘future self’ off that pedestal!

If you imagine yourself in Lve years’ time, try not to picture your future self as a completely different person. ‘When we imagine enjoying an experience in the future, it’s as though we’re picturing someone else completely,’ says Kelly McGonigal. But treating your future self like a stranger is bad news for willpower. Why? ‘We tend to idealize our future selves, thinking that by then, we’ll be more motivated and better organized, with bags more willpower! But we don’t realize that we’ll face the same challenges in the future as we do now,’ she says. Once you twig that no version of yourself is ever going to feel ecstatic about going to the dentist or filing your tax return instead of watching your favourite TV show, you’ll stop procrastinating and tackle tasks now.

TOP TIP: Jot down all the things that you’re putting off for your future self to do. Why do you assume you’ll be better equipped to handle them in a week, a month or a year? Plan one way in which you’ll tackle each of these things right now.

For example, if you wan to run a 5K (my future self will be better and more disciplined), think of the steps you need to take to get there and make your action point to start a daily walking habit or join a running club.