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Boost your willpower!

Can’t seem to achieve your health goals? Re-train your brain to resist temptation at every turn

Well, while said colleague may have been blessed with genetics that help her steer clear of the cookie jar, it’s not all bad news for the rest of us. Even those mere mortals among us can hone that willpower to resist mouth-watering temptations.

Imagine resisting those afternoon snacks, that second mini-cupcake or that sugary morning latte with ease – without feeling you’re missing out or being deprived. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Well, it is possible. Don’t believe us? Well, that’s where top psychologist Walter Mischel comes in.

All about marshmallows

At a Stanford University nursery back in the ’60s, Mischel began a series of tests, which looked at the ability of pre-school children to delay instant gratification in return for a bigger reward. In other words, forgo a treat now, for two treats later. 

The tests themselves were centred on actual treats, from cookies to cakes, earning the study the nickname ‘The Marshmallow Test’. The children were left in a room on their own and given two choices: ring the bell, the supervisor will return and you can eat one marshmallow; or wait until the supervisor comes back of their own accord (around 20 minutes later) and you can have two marshmallows. 

The choice was entirely theirs: immediate satisfaction with one yummy treat? Or exercising that willpower for a little longer to get double the reward? Which would you choose?

Surprising results

While the children all had different reactions to the test – some diving in for the first marshmallow straight away and some waiting patiently for the two marshmallows – what was really fascinating was that their reactions to this simple test actually determined their success in later life. Yup, really!

The children who had been able to resist the temptation of those marshmallows were, as teenagers, able to show better self-control in frustrating situations and ‘yield less to temptation’, as well as being less easily distracted, more intelligent, confident and self-reliant. A pretty impressive skillset, we’re sure you agree. And these positive traits continued into adulthood, where they reached higher levels of education, achieved more of their goals and had a lower body mass index, among other desirable qualities. So being able to resist temptation and having strong willpower was shown to have a whole host of positives in the long run.

What is willpower?

Some people are better than others at resisting temptation. But the idea that willpower is an innate quality is simply not true, according to Mischel. He states that willpower is often ‘mischaracterised as something other than a skill’. Willpower is often thought of as an elusive quality. But this research shows that willpower is, in fact, a skill, which you can develop and then choose to use. 

Mischel reiterates that ‘no matter how good we are at self-control “naturally” we can improve our self-control skills’. Wonder how your running buddy always makes it out for that 6am run, while you lounge in bed? Or how your bestie always manages to forgo dessert? Well, it’s not magic – you can do it, too!

Putting it into action

But willpower isn’t just about being really determined to do something; it’s about using strategies to ensure you avoid temptation and get the long-term reward you’re really after. Mischel uses the concept of hot and cold systems to show our reactions to high-temptation situations. The hot system – when you love it and cave in – is geared towards the present moment and, when it takes over, can cause you to forget those long term goals. For example, eating a large slice of cake for elevenses rather than resisting, which will help you achieve your goal of losing half a stone. To remedy this we need to reverse these processes. In Mischel’s words, we need to start ‘cooling the present and heating the future’.

The real world

So, what does all this mean for you? Well, Walter Mischel’s experiments reveal a great deal about what willpower is and how it can be fine-tuned to help you reach those elusive goals – whether that’s losing half a stone, running a marathon or staying away from the cookie jar. Ready to get started?
Here are some of his top techniques to help you boost your willpower – for good!

The technique: Push the temptation away

One of the key ways you can ‘cool’ the temptation is to physically and mentally push it away from you. And bring your long-term goals closer.

Use it: Work buddies offering around the choccy? First up, make sure that choc box is as far away from your desk as possible. Then Google some pictures of your upcoming holiday destination or do a bit of bikini shopping online to keep your mind focused on that longer-term goal.  

The technique: If, then

According to Mischel, one of the best techniques for honing that willpower is to employ the ‘if, then’ strategy. First you identify your ‘if’ trigger point – feeling too tired to exercise, feeling hungry mid-afternoon, canapés being handed around at an event – then you come up with a ‘then’ distraction strategy that will get you out of bed to exercise, away from the chocolate snacks or on the other side of the room from the canapé tray. 

Use it: Want to steer clear of tempting party treats or make sure you stick to that exercise routine? Try this: If the canapé tray comes around, then I’ll go and get a glass of water. Or if I feel too tired to exercise, then I’ll walk home instead of getting the bus instead. Simple, huh?

The technique: Think visually

Another weapon in your willpower arsenal is the ability to visualise the negative consequences of giving into temptation. The example Mischel gives is of a smoker wanting a cigarette – he recommends that you ‘visualise your lungs with cancer on an X-ray the doctor is showing you as he gives you the bad news’. It may seem a bit extreme, but imagining the future in the present moment can be a powerful tool for resisting temptation.

Use it: Lost a lot of weight? Keep a pic of the old you on your desk or near the fridge to remind you of the consequences of sacking off the healthy diet or exercise regime. Or find a picture of someone with a figure you crave and put it in the kitchen to stop you reaching for unhealthy snacks!

The technique: Be the third person

Another great technique suggested by Mischel is to imagine yourself as a fly on the wall in the situation. It’s a good way to remove yourself from the ‘hot’ impulses and give yourself the space to think calmly and rationally. 

Use it: Done a gruelling workout, but now gagging for a sweet treat? Take five minutes to sit down, imagine yourself as a fly on the wall and think rationally about the situation.

The technique: Enjoy the rewards

One of the best bits about exercising your willpower is that when you start to succeed, the benefits – a smaller waistline or a new PB – provide such a great reward that it makes your new behaviours easier to maintain. But Mischel emphasises the fact that, as with learning any new skill, ‘practice,’ is key.

Use it: Record each triumph! Every achievement on the road to your long-term goal deserves a little celebration, so keep a journal dedicated to recording your results – whether that’s the distance you’ve run, the inches you’ve lost or the number of pull-ups you can now do.

Motivational magic

It’s worth remembering that the key to willpower is actually wanting to achieve your goals. If you don’t want to do something or you’re not that bothered, it will be hard to conjure up any sort of willpower. As Mischel says, ‘you have to want to change, with the emphasis on want to’. So, before you take on a big goal, ensure that it’s something you really want.