5 Willpower Boosters (Hint: One Is Cash)

Science offers some ways to avoid all those holiday food temptations.

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Here's a list of the things I know I should do but don't: Eschew Nutter Butters during the daylight hours, walk the dog at lunchtime rather than catching the back half of What Not to Wear, and shred old mail promptly rather than letting it build up in huge shredder-choking stacks. (And that's just for starters.) But I have trouble translating those fairly reasonable goals into action—in other words, I lack willpower. I'm obviously not alone; think of how much trouble we Americans have keeping our weight down, making time for the gym, avoiding purchases we can't afford, and so on. Willpower alone won't magically solve all of society's problems, but a little more sure couldn't hurt.

It turns out plenty of scientists are studying the idea of willpower and how to increase it. (A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests your weight-loss willpower can get a boost from financial incentives, for example.) I caught up with a few researchers to get their tips for surviving the season of temptation.

  • Have a reason to change. If I can't imagine any upside from walking the dog instead of vegging out in front of the TV, I certainly won't do it. So before trying to convince yourself that you should do something, imagine how you'll feel when you achieve your goal. In my case, I'll get the warm and fuzzies after doing something positive for my fattish dog, as well as getting the mind-clearing benefits of a walk for myself. This is part of a process called mental contrasting, says Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University. Once you've got that alluring image of your potential future self in your head, identify the obstacles to getting there: in my case, inertia, a love of TV makeover shows, and the fact that by 12:30 I'm hungry for lunch.
    • Take a short cut. Once you've identified the obstacles to change, says Gollwitzer, you've got to plan how you're going to get around them when they arise; he says to use "if...then" statements to plot your so-called implementation intentions. So, "if I am hungry, then I'll have a quick few bites of something and then I'll go for a walk before eating a real lunch." Or, "if I feel like watching What Not to Wear, then I'll remind myself that it's on again at 1 p.m. and I should catch it after a walk." (Note to my editor: These are hypothetical examples only. Really.) The mental links created by making those specific plans—even if you don't write them down—are very similar to the links made by actually doing the right thing. "You're producing a habit in your mind," he says. Women who used this double-barreled approach with an eye to boosting their physical activity were twice as active as those who didn't, according to a study coauthored by Gollwitzer and published online in October by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
      • Put some skin in the game. In other words, money talks. This week's JAMA study found that people who were influenced by a financial reward to follow a 16-week weight-loss plan—either via a lottery open only to those making progress or a deposit contract, in which people could put money in the pot every day and get it back, plus matching funds, if they met their monthly goals—lost more weight than those without a financial incentive. (The effect faded after the incentives ended, raising the question of how long such a program would have to last to be effective.) It may not be just the money, says Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics Center for Health Incentives and an author of the study. "Those incentives may serve as a tangible reminder in the here and now" of the longer-term result you're trying to achieve, says Volpp, who conducted the study at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
      • Lacking some benevolent power to reward you with cash, you can turn to the website Stickk.com, which allows users to create their own contracts and gives them the option to put up "stakes" that they will forfeit if they don't meet their goals. Success rates are higher when users opt to set stakes—especially when they stipulate that in case of failure, the stakes will be donated to a charity whose goals they particularly disagree with (think hot-button issues like abortion and gun control), says Jordan Goldberg, CEO and cofounder of Stickk.

        • Enlist help. On Stickk, the average success rate increases when a referee—a friend or colleague who reports on your progress—is involved. The site will also keep a designated list of supporters informed on your progress or lack thereof. You can do the same thing offline; make your family and friends aware of what you're trying to do, and you're less likely to slip up.
          • Use willpower like a muscle. According to research by Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, and colleagues, willpower can be strengthened by repetition, but overtaxing it can lead to fatigue and failure. If you have several big changes to make, "the worst thing you can do is to take them all on at once, because they all draw on the same pot of energy," he says. (You're drawing down on that willpower pot even if you're succeeding with your goals.) To protect the resource, pick one thing to which you'll apply your willpower; it's likely to make the next change easier.
          • For more on the topic of lifestyle change, check out a recent story I wrote about why a recession might be good for your waistline and one about how a few easy recipe swaps may help you lose weight.