9 Ways to Build Willpower That Creates Success

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

February is the time of year when New Year’s resolutions waver and goals start to 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. A renowned piece of behavioral science research took place at Stanford University in 1972. The Washington Post describes it:

Stanford University’s Walter Mischel sat 600 children down at a table with a marshmallow and gave them a choice: They could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.

The kids struggled with temptation. About one-third of them stuck it out and earned the second treat.

Mischel 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 didn’t learn self-restraint as a kid, it’s not too late. Here are nine proven ways to build willpower:

1. Picture your goals

USA Today talked with Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, about self-control. Vohs says that “in lab studies, self-control is boosted when people conjure up powerful memories of the things they value in life.”

If you haven’t thought specifically about your deepest values and made detailed plans for where you want to go, don’t waste another moment. Do it. Revisit your plans repeatedly, especially when there is danger you’ll get sidetracked.

2. Lighten up

It’s easier to move toward goals when life feels worth living. Stress can undermine self-control, opening the door to slips. In an article about boosting willpower, Vohs told The New York Times, “Laughter and positive thoughts also help people perform better on self-control tasks.”

3. Remove temptations

Make it easier to meet your goals by planning how to reduce difficult decisions you must face. Some examples: Automate transfers from your paycheck to savings. Hang out with friends whose lives align with your goals. Avoid drinkers, smokers or big spenders if you’re quitting those habits.

If you are destroying debt, carry only cash, no credit cards. Stash your plastic where it’s hard to get it, or cut it up. Avoid malls.

4. Spend your reserves strategically

We have a limited amount of self-control at any one time. Use it strategically. When it’s consumed, there’s less for other goals. According to USA Today:

Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, says it’s interesting that “being taxed in terms of doing one task can have these spillover effects on another.” People may think they can compartmentalize the different tasks they do during the day, but it turns out they are all connected, she says.

5. Have a snack

Studies show that raising glucose levels may rebuild self-control. If you don’t want sugary treats — a glass of lemonade worked for subjects in one study — eat small healthy meals or snacks throughout the day to keep your glucose levels steady.

6. Procrastinate — on purpose

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 store, having satisfied the hunter-gatherer impulse.

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  • Colleen Eaddy

    Excellent article! Best one I’ve read on this subject. Includes actual exercises adults & children can complete to learn these valuable skills.

    • Thanks, Colleen!

    • IBikeNYC

      Play it smart, and she’ll never have to work a day in her life!

      WHAT a cutie! 😀

  • Richard Houghton

    Stacy, Your always firing on all cylinders. I read all your articles and they help me out more than you can imagine. keep them coming and by the way. Thank you very much. R

    • Much appreciated, Richard! You’ll never know how much we love comments like yours. They mean so much to all of us here!

  • sam

    Great topic and good stuff. I hope you will chose resiliency as a future topic.

  • Good one! I’ve read the Duhigg book. My parents were great at training for the delayed gratification game. But then, we were quite poor when I was young, so we simply couldn’t have what we wanted when we wanted it!

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