In his book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strengths, psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that we “have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted” as we use it. The good thing, as he points out, is that willpower is like a muscle in that it responds to strengthening exercises.
The biggest downfall of depleted willpower is that we feel other emotions more strongly. As a result, this leads to a one-two punch wherein: “Your willpower is diminished, and your cravings feel stronger than ever.” In other words, the willpower we use to resist one temptation comes from the same resource pool as the self-control exercised resisting another. This helps explain why diets are hard to stick to as well as why addictions can be so gripping.
What to do? Baumeister suggests focusing on one task or self-improvement goal at a time. Trying to attain several objectives at once leaves you with less energy because you use “the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.” Seems simple enough.
Another suggestion in the book mentioned research that showed changing one habitual behavior – such as using your left hand instead of your right or focusing on sitting up straight instead of slouching – will increase your willpower over time. The good news is that strengthening your willpower in one area leads to benefits in others. However, in order for a true increase in willpower to occur it requires more than a few simple exercises.
Reducing stress is a simple way to keep from depleting willpower. Research showed that during exams, college students’ self-control wanes in almost every area, including diet, personal hygiene and behavior. In addition, temptations they successfully resisted earlier in the semester such as smoking, drinking or staying up late, became much harder to withstand.
Ideally, Baumeister suggests that we can conserve willpower so that it’s available when needed to make a final push. It’s almost to say that willpower is the gas in the tank of success. This makes sense as there’s plenty of research out there that suggests glucose levels directly impact willpower. In fact, a single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels. In turn, the low levels of glucose impair subsequent attempts at self-control.
One last suggestion is something very simple, get plenty of rest. Resting reduces your body’s glucose requirements and improves its ability to use glucose in the bloodstream. Enough rest not only increases glucose levels but wards off mental fatigue which leads to overall poor functioning. While sleep requirements vary slightly for each of us, most healthy adults need between seven and a half to nine hours of sleep per night.