How to Increase Willpower and Stay on Track Financially

How to Strengthen Your Willpower to Stay on Track Financially

You can do it!

It’s happened to all of us.

No matter how committed we are to our frugal goals.

We start the day by brewing our own coffee at home, instead of stopping by our favorite coffee shop on the way to work. We manage to say “No, thanks,” to the group at work going out for lunch and eat our bologna sandwich alone at our desk.

Then we drive virtuously past the fruit stand with our favorite summer produce because we’ve already made our grocery purchases for the week.

Then later that same night, we find ourselves spending $150 on Amazon.com—and ruining the good work we’ve done all day.

Why on Earth would it be so much harder to avoid the Amazon purchases after turning down the smaller purchases all day?

According to psychologists, it all comes down to how willpower works. Apparently, instead of being a constant state of mind, willpower is more like a muscle. And like a muscle, you can tire it out so it’s very difficult to keep using it.

That’s why the dieter might find himself ordering an entire pizza for himself after eating nothing but salad and lean protein all day long, and the money saver might end up blowing a couple of Benjamins on something she doesn’t want after saying no to smaller purchases.

However, even though willpower can be used up like muscle strength, the news isn’t all bleak. Just like a muscle, your willpower can also be strengthened through exercise. If you’re having trouble staying on track, here is what you need to know about willpower and how to increase willpower to reach your financial goals:

Understanding Willpower

Willpower is a type of self-regulation. When the donuts are passed around at the morning meeting, your willpower is what prompts you to pass the box along without taking a chocolate-glazed for yourself. It’s also what prompts you to forgo favorite little luxuries when you are trying to save money. You are entirely in control over whether you eat the donut or spend the money, as no one will force you to do either one.

But as anyone who has ever struggled with a New Year’s Resolution can attest, it can feel much more difficult to regulate yourself than it should. Since no one is forcing you to take the donut, why does it sometimes feel as though you don’t really have a choice in the matter?

That’s because self-regulatory behavior, which includes everything from exercising willpower to making decisions, exhausts us. According to psychologists, the act of making a decision—whether it’s one in line with your goals and requires willpower, or one that simply needs to be made—saps mental energy in a process known as “ego depletion.” As that happens, we become weaker in the face of temptation and we experience things more intensely.

John Tierney, co-author of the book Willpower, described ego depletion to Audie Cornish of NPR:

Basically, it’s that everything feels more intensely to you. Good things and bad things. You suddenly feel everything a little bit more intensely because your brain has lost some ability to regulate emotions, and so you therefore respond more strongly to everything.

That’s enough to make it seem as though you have no control over your ability to say no.

How to Increase Willpower

Of course, just as we know people who are capable of running an eight-minute mile and bench-pressing 200 pounds, we also know people who seem completely immune to temptation. What’s their secret?

It’s actually not that different from the “secret” of athletes. Willpower can be depleted in the short-term, but it will strengthen over time if you regularly exercise it.

For instance, John Tierney mentions a study conducted by the University of Michigan in which students were asked to watch their posture for an entire week. After the end of the week, the students who had practiced good posture performed better in situations that tested their self-control—even though the tests had nothing to do with posture.

This study and other findings by psychologists have determined that practicing willpower in small ways can help you to improve your overall willpower—at least when it counts most to you.

How to Increase Willpower in the Short Term

Unfortunately, knowing that sitting up straight for a week will help you avoid the spending temptations down the road doesn’t really help if you’re currently feeling ego depletion. Luckily, there are tricks that can help you self-regulate in the short term, even if you’ve just come from a long day of resisting temptation.

1. Distract yourself.

The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the late 1960s tested willpower and the ability to delay gratification in small children. In this experiment, four-year-old children were given a marshmallow and told they could eat it right away, but if they could wait 15 minutes, they would receive a second marshmallow. The children who were able to wait for the second treat distracted themselves by singing songs or hiding their eyes, thereby distracting themselves from the temptation of the marshmallow.

Those little kids were onto something. People with excellent willpower often simply remove temptations from their path (think of the dieter’s house with no ice cream or cookies in it), or they will focus on something else in order to ignore the temptation. If you are tempted to spend money, start focusing on the reason why you’re saving. It will help to motivate you to stay on track while giving your brain something else to think about.

2. Have some juice or a snack.

According to recent research, self-regulation actually depends on available blood-glucose levels. This is part of the reason why you may feel more alert and able to work right after lunch as opposed to right beforehand, and why it’s impossible to stick to a grocery list if you’re shopping while hungry. If you’re feeling tempted by something you know you shouldn’t have, take the time to have a piece of fruit or other complex carbohydrate. It can help you get back your willpower mojo.

3. Force yourself.

We’ve all experienced the sudden burst of energy you get when you start a task you’ve been putting off. Whether it’s washing the dishes or writing that term paper, just taking the first step can be enough to get us going. That’s because we often need less self-regulation than we think we do to complete a task, so forcing ourselves to simply get started can be enough to bring on extra willpower reserves.

When it comes to avoiding temptations, simply forcing yourself to ignore them can be enough to get you through that particular situation—although you will still feel depleted for the next one until you’ve had a chance to rest and start anew.

4. Remember your motivation.

The Boston marathoners who finished up a 26.2 mile race and then continued running an additional two miles to donate blood at Massachusetts General Hospital must have been completely exhausted by the marathon. And yet they found the physical strength to keep running and donate blood. On any other day, these marathoners might have said they couldn’t possibly run another step after the end of the race. The difference, of course, was motivation.

According to Timothy Pychyl of Psychology Today, ego depletion seems to reduce motivation:

Given that depleted self-regulatory strength may leave us feeling like we won’t succeed, ‘we’re too tired to try,’ it may be that the reduced expectancy of success undermines our willingness to exert effort. It’s not that we’re so impaired that we can’t respond. It’s that we ‘don’t feel like it.’

Basically, remembering your motivation for avoiding temptation can help you to find the strength to overcome your ego depletion.

What tricks do you use to maintain your willpower in the face of temptations?

Share Button



Last Edited: May 30, 2013 @ 10:03 am
About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher, and an excellent freelance writer. She's also a stay-at-home-mom. She resides in Lafayette, IN, with her engineer husband and son. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.