In my last post, I wrote about delayed gratification and the Stanford marshmallow study. I wrote about the consequences low self-control may have in life. If you didn’t get a chance to read it you can see it here.
But can a person increase their willpower, or are they just born with a predetermined amount of self-control?
Fortunately, you can learn to increase your willpower. As with most things in life, you don’t have to settle for the status quo.
So the question is how? How does one learn to delay gratification?
Here are 3 helpful tips to increase willpower
1. Recognize Patterns
You will be better able to cope with stress and will have greater willpower when you feel good and are energized.
There are certain times of the day when you will feel more energized than others. There are times of the day when you tend to be in a better mood. And there are times when you will be grumpier, more tired, edgy, etc. The key is to know when those times are for you.
See, most of us go through life without paying much attention to how we are feeling or why. We just kind of stumble through things and figure that’s just the way we are. The problem with that is that we tend to blame life on circumstances outside of our control. When in reality, we could have a lot more control over our happenings if we just knew what to look for.
Let me give you an example. Here at KW Legacy Ranch, each of our students does an assignment called The Feelings Log. This assignment requires the student to keep track of their feelings by writing them down on paper every 30 minutes for seven days.
Yes it’s intensive, but it’s very valuable information and it’s something they will use for the rest of their life.
Without fail, every student makes some extremely useful discoveries while doing this assignment.
One of those discoveries is that each of us has a certain circadian rhythm that is fairly recognizable if one will only pay attention.
For some of our students, they note that they are much happier and more energetic in the mornings. For others it may be the evenings. Some note that they tend to get irritable right before meals or that they are tired in the afternoons.
The key is to know and recognize your own patterns.
You will have more willpower and will be better able to resist negative enticements e.g. drugs, junk food, peer pressure, when you are happy and energetic.
You may not need to write your feelings down every 30 minutes for a week (although it definitely wouldn’t hurt) to start to recognize your patterns. But at least pay attention to your feelings and what time of the day you may be weakest or strongest.
Don’t put yourself in compromising situations when you are feeling tired, hungry, irritated, or have a lack of energy.
Try to recognize these patterns in others as well. For example, pay attention to when your teenager is happier and more energized. Is it when they first wake up and have breakfast? Is it in the evenings before bed?
If they tend to wake up grumpy every morning, then before school may not be the best time to have a discussion with them about their slipping grades. It may be better to wait until a later time of the day.
Paying attention to these cycles in yourself and others can have a tremendous impact on increasing willpower.
2. Stay Energized
As previously mentioned, you are likely to have more willpower when you have more energy. So it should be obvious that one way to increase willpower is to stay energized.
Eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, etc. Of course this brings us to the chicken or egg conundrum. What if I don’t have the willpower to eat healthy or exercise, then I won’t feel energized and I won’t have the self-control to eat healthy and exercise …It’s a bad cycle.
One of the reasons our students do so well and feel so good about themselves on the ranch is because they have a schedule, they eat healthy, they get plenty of exercise, and they go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
These may seem like minor things, but they can have major consequences regarding self-control and preventing relapsing behaviors.
3. Use Healthy Distractions
In the Stanford marshmallow study, the kids who were able to delay gratification and wait for the second treat did so by distracting themselves from the treat in front of them.
Some of the children sang a song, some of them covered their eyes, and some of them took the treat and sat on it. Others turned all the way around or kicked the desk. Some even said they imagined the marshmallow was a cloud instead of a treat.
Although this tactic may seem juvenile, it can help tremendously during those times you are feeling weak.
Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, talk to a friend, engage in a hobby. These are all ways to distract yourself in a healthy manner.
If you see something you “have” to buy right now but is fairly expensive, take a night to sleep on it. Usually after a good night’s sleep you will think differently about that purchase.
Again, the key is to find healthy ways to distract your mind instead of focusing on that thing you have to have or want to do right now-whether it’s junk food, cigarettes, or any other bad habit.
So if you would like to increase your self-control, or if you would like to help your teenager increase their willpower, follow the three tips above.
One disclaimer: when it comes to addictions, willpower alone isn’t the only answer. There are many factors that come into play in an addiction, and when someone relapses it isn’t necessarily because they don’t have self-control. So understand that addiction is a different story.
However, the point of this post is that self-control can be learned and improved over time. You weren’t doomed to a life of failure just because you would have eaten the first marshmallow as a preschooler. Know that things can improve-it just takes a little willpower.