4 Facts About Willpower

Facts About WillpowerResearchers say self-control is easier to tap into than you might realize. Here are seven ways to sharpen your resolve.

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1. We're Wired for It
We may think of willpower as strictly a mental faculty, but it has a physiological basis, says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of the new book "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It." It's rooted in an instinct, just like its better-known cousin, the "fight-or-flight" response. We're all aware of that one: Faced with an external stressor, whether it's a serious threat (a mugger on a darkened street) or an irksome frustration (waiting in an endless line), our heart rate and blood pressure increase and our breathing quickens.

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2. It Fluctuates
Everybody has moments of strength and moments of weakness. "No one's self-control is perfect all the time," explains Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who cites the survey in "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." So when there's a lapse, it makes sense to reframe the situation, thinking, "Maybe I was a little depleted, and I should manage myself better in the future," he says -- not, "I lack strength of character."

3. Guilt Doesn't Work
To be sure, willpower is connected to success, and people with less self-control are more apt to make bad decisions. But labeling oneself as "bad" after eating an extra slice of pizza is unlikely to produce positive changes in behavior. In fact, it can lead to self-sabotage. Chastising creates guilt and shame, McGonigal says, emotions that trigger stress. So if you're primed to deal with anxiety in an unhealthy way, such as overeating, remorse over not exerting restraint will lead you right back to the thing you're trying to quit. At the other end of the spectrum: feeling over-confident about good behavior. Patting yourself on the back for taking an extended turn on the treadmill is fine, as long as success isn't used as an excuse to revert to old behavior.

4. There Are Three Parts
It may sound monolithic, but willpower is a multifaceted thing: In fact, it comprises three separate powers. Using them in tandem can make it easier to create a new habit. There's "I will" power: the ability to do something we don't want to do because it's good for us (go to the gym at the crack of dawn before heading to the office). "I won't" power is the ability to stay away from things that are bad for us (playing an umpteenth round of Angry Birds before going to bed). And "I want" power -- making decisions based on goals ("Staying healthy, for my sake and my family's, means a lot to me.").

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