Grit, resolve, determination, self control. So many names for willpower, but it can be so difficult to muster up the motivation to do certain tasks. Scientists say that willpower is our ability to resist short-term temptations so that we can achieve longer-term goals such as progressing our careers, building up savings accounts, exercising frequently, eating healthily and resisting temptations. But while some people have great grit, others have a dicey relationship with short-term temptations. What can we do to strengthen our resolve and willpower?

The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test, a series of tests carried out by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and early 1970s, revealed that the ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ systems in our brain decide whether we give into short-term temptation, or not.
The famous series of experiments looked at delayed gratification in pre-school children, and tested how long children could hold off eating one marshmallow in order to get two marshmallows. The researcher would leave the room temporarily and the child would be left sitting alone with the marshmallow (or a cookie or any sweet temptation) in front of them. If the child could wait until the researcher came back (which could be up to 20 minutes) they could have two marshmallows. But if the child couldn’t wait, all they had to do was ring the bell, the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one marshmallow.
Success later in life
One of the most fascinating aspects of this test was when Walter Mischel followed up with the children who took part in the study when they were aged 27-32. Those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in pre-school had a lower body mass index, a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress.
So how did these children delay gratification?
If they imagined the treats as being not real, i.e. a picture or tasteless clouds, they waited for 18 minutes, and if they were told to think ‘fun thoughts’ before the experiment, e.g. going to the circus, playing with friends, they waited for more than ten minutes on average. Conversely, if they were told to think about how good the marshmallow would taste guaranteed that they would ring the bell soon after the door was closed. Also, those children who stared directly at the marshmallow couldn’t resist and rang the bell immediately.
So, is it possible or strengthen our own willpower, or is it all a foregone conclusion that our hot brain overpowers our cool brain? Thankfully we can do something about it. Mischel says, “If people can change how they mentally represent a temptation, they can exert self-control and escape from being victims of the ‘hot’ impulses that have come to control their behaviour. It doesn’t require Spartan clenched-teeth self-torture to toughen up and take the pain, but it does take more than strong motivation and the best intentions. The power resides in the prefrontal cortex (cool system), which, if activated, allows almost endless ways of cooling hot, temptations by changing how they are appraised”.
There are a number of ways to cool allow the ‘hot’ impulsive part of our brains. Think of the hot part of the brain as a strong engine whereas the cool part of the brain has better mental brakes. The next time temptation strikes, hit the brakes with these strategies:  
1. ‘If-Then’ statements
‘If-then’ statements came out of research in 1990s. If people create a plan in advance of temptation it takes the panic out of having to make decisions in the heat of the moment. For example, if someone says this every morning, “If I am tempted to eat chocolate, I will have an apple instead”. Mischel says, “It sounds simple and it is. If-Then plans, when they become automatic, take the effort out of effortful control: you can trick the hot system into reflexively and unconsciously doing the work for you.”  
2. Regular exercise
A study by Australian scientists looked at sedentary participants who had taken up a new exercise regime. The participants started going to the gym three times a week for weight training and aerobic classes and continued for two months. At the end of the exercise regime people who had smoked 14 cigarettes a day had reduced to 3 a day, but also drank less, ate more healthily, completed more household chores, saved more money and had better grades.
3. Three steps to achieving your goals
Willpower on its own is not enough to get your goals. Roy Baumeister, willpower researcher, describes 3 steps to achieving objectives:

  • Establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal
  • Monitor your behaviour
  • Willpower

For example, if you want to become better at time management, you first need to be clear on why you want to manage your time better. Are you having to stay late at work every evening and this is impacting on your personal life? Do you want to start working on some bigger projects that are more valuable to you?
Next, track your time for one week. Do you know how much time you spend on weekly calls, replying to emails and in meetings? Monitor this time, and you’ll be amazed at the amount of time you spend on routine tasks. To cut back on this, try only checking emails three times a day as a start. Come up with an If-Then plan to resist the temptation to check your email such as, “If I am tempted to check my email every five minutes, I will sign out of my emails”.
4. Take goals one at a time
Imagine if I said that tomorrow you should start going to the gym at 6.30am each morning, check email three times a day, quit smoking and avoid sugar forever. All of this sounds impossible to do all once and your willpower will crack in no time. Instead, take goals one by one. Bring your new goal to a stage where it just becomes a routine part of life, and not something you have to actively think about, and then move onto your next goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day!
5. Willpower is not a limited resource
There is a prominent theory around ‘ego depletion’, where we have a limited amount of willpower to see us through each day. We can resist the cookie in the morning, but after a long, tough day at work, it becomes more and more difficult to resist the cookie at 9pm.
However, a 2013 study shows that we perform better when we believe that willpower is not limited. Two groups were shown a biased questionnaire in which group A read statements like “Working on a strenuous task can make you feel tired” and Group B read statements like “Working on a strenuous task can make you feel energized for further challenges”. Both groups were then asked to complete difficult puzzles. Those people in Group A, who read about limited willpower, gave up on the task much quicker than those in Group B who had read about unlimited willpower. If we believe that willpower is not limited, this study suggests that we can still resist temptations later in the day and achieve more each day.
As Walter Mischel says, “It doesn’t require Spartan clenched-teeth self-torture to toughen up and take the pain, but it does take more than strong motivation and the best intentions”. Be prepared for temptations – try the ‘If-Then’ approach and preempt your temptation triggers. Follow the example of the amazing children in the Marshmallow Test and look for distractions. And just like the people in Group B above, believe that your willpower is not limited.
Do you have any more tips? If there is anything that worked for you, please let us know in the comments below