I’ll answer with a paradox: The best way to improve your willpower is not to use your willpower.
Research has shown that those with strong willpower actually need it less on a daily basis. This is because they use their willpower not to fight urges but to make sure that they don’t face those urges in the first place.
The single most important fact to know about willpower is that it is weak. Recent research study found that people fight against a desire approximately one fourth of the time during their waking hours – and half of the time they loose that battle.
Willpower is especially vulnerable when it comes to basic cravings such as food or smoking. So relying on your willpower alone to fight those battles is not a successful strategy, because it gets depleted through use. You might successfully fight that urge to peek at Facebook at work, but by the time you get home, you don’t have the energy to win the battle against the donut.
Picture source: SMOSH Food Battle: THE GAME
Therefore, the best and most energy-efficient way to avoid a temptation is to make it impossible to fulfill. A candy bar at your desk is much harder to resist than a candy bar that is still at the store. It is easier to fight the urge to splurge on those designer jeans, if you left your credit card at home before entering the mall.
So whatever your temptation is, take a look at your environment and think: Is there a way to avoid it altogether? If there is no chocolate in the house, you don’t have to fight against that late night craving for a bite. More generally, become conscious about the directions towards which your environment is nudging you. Are the salads more easily available at your lunch joint than the burgers? Are the jogging shoes easier at hand at your home than the remote control? The key is to redesign your environment so that it is as easy as possible to do the good thing, while doing the wrong thing requires more effort. Through right design, your physical environment can support you, instead of undermining you, in achieving the goals that are important to you.
Therefore, time spent on designing your environment is, I believe, the best investment you can make to improve your willpower.
Sources for the research studies mentioned:
* Hofmann et al. 2012: Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
* Hofmann et al. 2012: What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About, and Try to Resist in Everyday Life. Psychological Science.
* De Ridder et al. 2012: Taking Stock of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis of How Trait Self-Control Relates to a Wide Range of Behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review.