Besides intelligence, willpower is meant to be the single most important trait for success in life. In our latest SmartList, we explain simple ways to improve your self-control.
Hold in your pee
Strangely, it can stop you making impulsive decisions – psychologists call it ihnibitory spillover.
Intriguingly, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron claims to use this strategy before important meetings. The idea is that while the brain is exercising self-control on one task, its discipline spreads to any other task at hand. In one study, for instance, some participants were asked to drink a few glasses of flavoured water. Before having the chance to relieve themselves, they were given the opportunity to earn some money. The participants who needed the toilet were more likely to forgo a smaller, immediate award in order to receive a bigger pay-out later on – a classic test of willpower.
Sleep on it
Psychologists think of willpower as a “limited resource” – essentially, you can use it up over the course of a day. We can’t always choose when our self-control is going to be tested, of course – but when making a big decision (about whether to buy a car, or end your marriage, say) you may do better to sleep on it. Otherwise, you may face regret in the morning.
Get a sugar rush
Self-control uses up the brain’s energy reserves, meaning that you are more weak-willed when you are hungry. One study found that judges are more likely to make rash judgements before lunch for this very reason – and it could also explain why we lose our temper and get “hangry” around dinnertime. But a simple sweet drink can give you a boost and restore your reserves. It’s not a good strategy if you are trying to be healthy, though.
Although willpower can wear down over the day (and with hunger) there are ways to restore it. One option is comedy. A recent study found that people who watched funny videos were better at controlling their impulses later on. They were more likely to stomach a nasty-tasting drink, for instance, that was meant to be good for their health.
Self-control often involves suppressing some difficult emotions, as you keep your eye on the prize. Fortunately, mindful contemplation helps you to balance your feelings, so that you can continue to act in your own best interests.One simple technique is to focus your attention across different parts of the body, observing the unique sensations in each place.
Stop feeling guilty
The mind automatically associates guilt with pleasure – meaning that we find our vices even more enticing when we know we’re not meant to enjoy them. Conversely, a little guilt-free indulgence may just be the rest you need to help you maintain your resolve. So if you do find yourself breaking a resolution, don’t beat yourself up – just see it as a momentary lapse that will leave you renewed and ready to fight on.