With regards to meeting educational goals — whether you’re studying for a math test, writing your dissertation or learning a new language — remaining or staying focused can be difficult. In the event that you have a hard time resisting short-term temptations so you can meet long-term goals, you’re not alone. Americans believe that the number one barrier to making positive behavior changes is a lack of willpower.
Being able to call upon your willpower will serve you well in school and beyond. In one study, students who were better able to delay gratification earned better grades and higher test scores, had better attendance records and were more likely to get into a competitive high school program. What is researchers’ conclusion? Self-discipline may be even more important than IQ when it comes to predicting academic success.
Those distinctions last, too. In one groundbreaking study, researchers told preschoolers they could have one marshmallow immediately or two if they could wait for a few minutes. As children, the kids who were able to hold out were more likely to earn higher SAT scores. Plus, their parents reported, they were better ready to plan, handle stress and frustration, and concentrate without getting distracted.
After several studies, we have our answer! With the right practice, willpower can be strengthened just like any other muscle in the body.
Fair warning: like all practice, these workouts can be challenging. After all, you will be exerting your willpower in the same way that you would exert your legs on a run. But they are scientifically proven to get you results.
So although it will be difficult in the short-term, eventually it will be easier to say no to temptations, make it to the gym and stick with your long-term goals!
1. Ten (10) MINUTES OF MEDITATION
Meditation will give you the fastest results of all of the willpower workouts listed. By meditating you are training the brain to focus and resist the urge to wander. Research shows that after just 2-3 days of practicing meditation for 10 minutes, your brain will be able to focus better, you will have more energy, and you will be less stressed.
To get started with 10 minutes of meditation, check out this article. It will provide you with all of the benefits of mediation as well as simple exercise designed specifically for beginners.
2. WORK ON YOUR POSTURE
When testing if willpower could be strengthened, researchers asked a group of participants to work on their posture for a 2-week period. Every time they caught themselves slouching, they were to correct themselves by sitting up straight. This simple practice vastly improved their perseverance on various willpower tests like this one.
To get started, simply correct your posture every time you catch yourself slouching at work or at home. It sounds extremely simple, but it takes willpower to sit up straight. Every time you do, you’re essentially doing “one rep” with your willpower muscle.
3. KEEP A FOOD DIARY
The same study also found that those who kept a food diary improved their willpower. Most of us don’t log all of the food we eat, so it takes willpower to keep track of it all. Any similar logging of information will also work, but I recommend a food diary because of all of its benefits listed here.
To get started, I recommend downloading the MyFitnessPal App. It’s a simple food diary app that has a huge database of foods and nutrition information. Just keep the diary for 2 weeks, and it will increase your ability to resist temptations!
4. USE YOUR OPPOSITE HAND
Using the same methodology as with posture, researchers conducted further studies that tested other corrective actions. One that worked particularly well was to use your opposite hand. Your brain is wired to use your dominant hand, so it takes willpower to use the opposite.
To get started, select a chunk of the day to use your opposite hand. It doesn’t need to be any more than an hour in order to get results. And from personal experience, if you aim for more than an hour, you will unnecessarily tire out your willpower muscle.
5. CORRECT YOUR SPEECH
Another test that the researchers conducted was to change subjects’ natural speech. This includes resisting the urge to use swear words, or to say “hello” instead of “hey”. Again, it takes willpower to consciously go against your instincts. It doesn’t matter how you correct your speech, as long as you change your natural speech habits.
To get started, select a chunk of the day to practice and choose the words you will change. Personally, I tried not using contractions (using “do not” instead of “don’t”, etc.) during work hours and it worked very well. Like all exercises listed above, doing this for just 2 weeks can vastly improve your willpower!
6. CREATE AND MEET SELF-IMPOSED DEADLINES
Anyone who remembers their college days, remembers what it was like cramming for a test or doing a last minute paper. Your willpower gets taxed as you try to tune out distractions and become hyper-productive. Using this same principle, researchers found that by creating self-imposed deadlines you can work your willpower in the same way.
To get started, simply pick a task on your to-do list that you may have been putting off. Set a deadline for accomplishing it, and make sure you adhere to it. The participants who followed this process for 2 weeks not only got their old to-dos done, but also improved their diets, exercised more, and cut back on cigarettes and alcohol.
7. KEEP TRACK OF YOUR SPENDING
In the same way most of us don’t track the food that we eat, many of us don’t track our spending either. Even if you don’t cut back on spending – which would also be a willpower workout – researchers found that simply keeping track of where your money went will improve your willpower.
To get stated, try using a budgeting app like Mint. Mint can connect to your bank account, credit cards, etc. and automatically track your purchases. By simply reviewing this on a regular basis, you will see increases in your focus and ability to resist unrelated temptations like sweets.
8. SQUEEZE A HANDGRIP
For the truly determined who want to increase their perseverance, you can squeeze a handgrip until exhaustion. If you’ve ever squeezed one before, you know that it gives you a deep forearm burn. So it takes willpower to keep squeezing.
To get started, simply get a handgrip like this one, and squeeze it with each hand until you’re exhausted. Willing yourself to continue squeezing even when it hurts will increase your perseverance on other challenging tasks.
9. CARRY AROUND SOMETHING TEMPTING
Again, for the truly determined out there, you can increase your ability to say “no” by carrying around something tempting with you all day. Researchers tried this with participants by teaching them how to resist cravings, then giving them a Hershey’s Kiss to carry around with them. Those who resisted the Kiss were much more capable of resisting other temptations in their lives as well!
To get started, first learn how to resist a craving. This will be hard, so your will want to know how to deal with the craving. Then carry something small but tempting with you. It doesn’t need to be for an entire day, but for long enough that you will be truly tempted. By consistently saying “no”, you will increase your ability to resist other temptations and ignore distractions!
10. BE MORE CONSCIOUS OF YOUR AUTOMATIC DECISIONS
A final exercise is to simply be more mindful of your decisions throughout the day. We are often so lost in thought, that our actions become automatic. Taking time to think about why you are making your daily decisions will increase your ability to focus and resist temptations.
To get started, try to catch yourself in an automatic behavior and ask yourself why you are doing it. This may be questioning why you are eating cereal instead of eggs for breakfast, or it may be questioning why exactly you put 2 sugars in your coffee. Any way you can think consciously about a typical automatic behavior will increase your focus and self-control.
Like all muscles in the body, willpower can be strengthened with the right practice. Above you will find 10 practical and effective ways to strengthen your self-control, focus and perseverance. Do not try to do all 10 at once.
Think about training your willpower muscle like training for a marathon. Your first training run wouldn’t be the full 26 miles or even close to that. You would start small and gradually build up as your muscles got stronger. So choose just 1 of these workouts to add to your daily routine.
Determine which workout seems practical and effective for the goal you want to achieve and get to work. By simply following the steps laid out, you will be well on your way to becoming more mentally strong!