Being more productive is a challenge.
The desire for self-improvement is embedded in our DNA. But we are not too keen on the idea of changing old habits. It’s hard work, and we will often fail more than we succeed. When it comes to changes, it seems that our willpower is never quite enough. So how can we improve it?
We deal with internal conflicts on a daily basis. We must balance desires, such as going crazy in that “All You Can Eat” buffet, with responsibilities, like preparing for that final exam or finish an important project.
Willpower, or self-control, is a reaction to such internal conflicts. It comes from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and regulating our behavior. And just as all the other parts of our body, you need to look after it.
The same way we strengthen our muscles during exercise and overusing them makes us weak until we have time to recover, so does our willpower.
When we focus excessively on multiple and less important decisions throughout the day, like choosing what to wear and what to eat, we drain our willpower. It then becomes more difficult to concentrate on difficult and important tasks, like studying and working.
But much like your muscles, we can strengthen willpower. These hacks are the core of how to improve willpower. They may seem simple and obvious but are proven to be very effective. Let’s dive in!
#1 Get More Sleep
A good night of sleep is the foundation for improving your willpower. Most people know this, but few actually incorporate this habit into their lives.
Bad sleeping habits make you weak and tired. They have a direct effect on your focus and decision-making, whilst slowly exhausting your source of energy. Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It”, stresses the importance of enough hours of sleep:
“Sleep deprivation (even just getting less than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. The prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit and it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response.”
Try sleeping between 7.5 and 8.5 hours a night. You will be giving your body more time to recharge its batteries and synthesize all the substances it needs. A good rest makes it much easier to deal with the daily activities and challenges.
Studies show that the proper amount of sleep makes it possible to live longer, happier and be more productive. Sleep more not only to improve your willpower but also your quality of life.
Meditation is a great way to increase your willpower stock. Over time it improves your attention, focus, self-awareness, and lower your stress levels.
Meditation does not take hours of dedication or a lifetime of practice in order to make a difference. A few minutes every day will do the trick. It clears your head of inconvenient thoughts and worries while activating the areas of your brain related to decision-making and emotions.
Meditation does not take a Buddhist’s concentration to be effective. Sit in a comfortable spot in your house, close your eyes, and clear your head. Pay attention to your body, the feel of your breath, and how your mind wanders. This helps you relax the muscles and create space to focus on the tasks to be tackled during the day.
Many studies have shown changes after 8 weeks of brief periods of daily meditation. Try it for 10 to 15 minutes every day during this period. You won’t be disappointed with the results.
#3 Create Good Habits
Developing good habits helps you get through stressful situations without affecting your willpower and your health, especially in the long run. Whenever we are stressed, we tend to unconsciously fall back on ingrained habits, whether they are helpful or harmful.
Imagine the following scenario: you need to study for your midterm exams. Passing the exams depends entirely on your efforts. You will be in a state of great stress, causing your body to boost stress hormones, notably cortisol. Our most common response is to resort to food (carbs and sweets) or alcohol. Although these strategies lower the cortisol levels, they cause serious problems in the long run, such as obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism.
Experiment by tackling stress with healthier activities: eat a healthy snack, listen to relaxing music, watch comedy videos, take a walk in a park, or exercise. The more you do it, the more it will become a habit. Once it does, you will be doing it without thinking and without depleting your willpower. Also, the more likely these habits will come to your rescue whenever you face a stressor.
#4 Exercise and Eat Better
A good meal and some exercise will help you live a much healthier life. More specifically, it will maintain and even increase your willpower reserves.
This is probably the most ignored habit of all since. It’s easy to give in to temptation and eat like crazy, feeling guilty about yourself afterward. But what you eat and how much you exercise has a direct effect on your energy level and how your prefrontal cortex will work.
Eating healthier is not rocket science. Eat a more plant-based, less-processed diet to provide your brain with more energy and your body with the necessary vitamins, proteins, and minerals.
You can also benefit from both mindful exercises like yoga and intense physical training. Exercising releases endorphin in our body, reducing the fat percentage, anxiety levels, the chances of becoming sick, and of course. But, best of all, it improves our willpower.
A study gave a group of people free gym membership and personalized training programs. Those who regularly exercised reported a decrease in smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, attendance to commitments and improvement in study habits.
Look for activities you enjoy, such as jogging, bike riding, swimming, martial arts, etc. Once you have found it, it will be much easier (and enjoyable) to do it.
#5 Change Your Environment
Even though we do not realize it, our environment has a great influence on our behavior. This is true to notable things, like loud noises, uncomfortable chairs, dimmed lights, and to small, almost unthinkable details.
If you eat with a big spoon or using a big plate, you tend to eat more. Mute and put away your phone while working or studying and you will be less tempted to look at it. Changing your environment can be very helpful to keep you from being distracted and avoid consuming willpower.
Try to associate your environment with a specific task. Your desk or office has to be related to work or study, so fill it with work/study related things. Having distracting objects close to you will often lead your attention astray, setting you off your main purpose. Keep all this stuff in a drawer or a separate room.
You can also make certain tasks easier or harder to perform. If you want to stop watching too much TV, try unplugging it or removing the batteries from the remote control. Do you want to start exercising more? Try packing your gym clothes the day before and leaving them right beside your bed.
Re-arrange everything you want to focus on, and keep away the things that take away your concentration
#6 Eliminate Unnecessary Decisions
Have you ever considered how many decisions do you make on a normal day? From the most simple ones, like what to drink at lunch, to the most important or complex ones, such as negotiations for a big sale you want to make. How about during the course of a week, or a month?
We make a huge amount of decisions, dipping our hands into our willpower reserves for each one. Limit the number of decisions you make in order to focus on the really important ones.
There are ways to help you create the habit of performing some activities, like previously packing your clothes in order to avoid excuses for not exercising. This can also be easily done with many of our daily tasks and routines. Set aside your outfit for work the night before. Have the same breakfast, or think of a small number of options from which you can choose. If you are cooking lunch or dinner, have everything you need, ingredients and utensils, organized in advance.
As you go through your normal day, try to pay attention to all the decisions you have to make which take unnecessary time. Think of ways to eliminate or minimize them to preserve your willpower. Every little bit counts!
#7 Work on One Step at a Time
Even though we try to make the best efforts to maintain our willpower levels to a maximum, sometimes the real challenge is the complexity or importance of the task we have in our hands.
A project at work can feel overwhelming, no matter how much of our willpower we put into it. Try to break down the task into as many manageable parts as possible, organizing them in a logical sequence.
Picture yourself eating a whale. It may seem impossible, but you have to do it one bite at a time, and without looking up to see how much is left! This might be funny to imagine, but not hard to put to the test. If you want to go jogging, for example, set up an initial goal, and then add one more minute every week. Try this, and your progress will increase much more quickly.
This guarantees that you will never put yourself in a state of willpower depletion. Once you reach every small goal, you will feel a sense of satisfaction and pride, which makes it easier to tackle the following one. And when you reach your final goal, you are more likely to feel strengthened and ready for the next challenges.
#8 Exercise Self-Compassion
Countering the general belief, there is abundant evidence that self-compassion works much better than self-criticism when we have to deal with failures, or not reaching a certain goal.
During a study conducted with college women, the researchers divided two groups and asked each of them to eat a donut from a plate. One of the groups then received a small intervention, in which they heard words like “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself for eating the donut. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff”. Later, both groups were asked to test some chocolates. As a result, the group that received the small intervention ate significantly less chocolate than the other group.
People who exercise self-compassion tend to develop a willingness to learn from their failures and mistakes and to improve their weaknesses. Students who have failed in one exam, for example, will feel more interested in studying harder, and at the same time feel more optimistic for the following exams.
When we realize that failure is a part of life and that we can learn from them, it will be easier to recover from setbacks and pursue positive change.
#9 Use the 2-Minute Rule
This hack is very simple. Whenever you are having trouble to get started on a certain task, make the following deal with yourself: you’ll do it for just 2 minutes.
Many people struggle to start doing something, but as soon as we are in motion, it is much easier to keep going. Instead of telling yourself how much you do not want to do something, make the initial effort to do one small part of your work. Read one page of a book, or run one lap around the block.
90% of the times you will continue in whatever you are doing. Once you start acting on a task, it’s easier to keep the ball rolling.The 2-Minute rule is a great way to break the first and most difficult barrier of procrastination: getting started.
#10 Take a Bite of Dark Chocolate
On top of everything we can do to keep our willpower stock stable and make it grow, this is the easiest one.
Once in a while, you will have to make a quick decision, and despite all your efforts to increase your willpower for situations like this, it will be tough. Simply take a quick break and have a bit of dark chocolate.
This small energy boost will help you to focus your brain on the decision. You already know that it’s much better to eat healthy food to provide a steady and quality source of fuel to our brains, but in the event of an emergency, giving in to a piece of chocolate is not a bad thing.
Seriously, it will help you build that little bit of willpower that you need.
All these hacks are very good when it comes to improving our willpower, and consequently becoming more productive. However, more than becoming great students or professionals, our willpower should always be put to good use.
The force we have inside of us has to be used not only for ourselves and our own development, but also for a greater good, for those around us, and for the next generations.
Everything humankind has achieved throughout the past centuries was only possible because of our willpower and inner strength. They make us go further, learn, create and discover.
And the future is in our hands, as it always was. It is up to each and every one of us to decide which future we want for ourselves and to go after it.
So, rise up and shine, and make the best of your day, always.