Willpower: 15 ways to charge your backup generator

Willpower is a viable strategy only when a huge storm knocks out your normal generator. (That is, good habits that you care deeply about; they help ward off addictive desires.)

When you have a really bad day and you think it’ll be impossible to resist, that’s when you use willpower. The good news is you can strengthen it in advance. And this article lists 15 ways to do just that.

willpower Pinterest Pin

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

This article will adapt from multiple sources, chiefly Willpower by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister. I can’t cover everything here, and there’s lots more brilliant findings in the book, so I recommend reading it in its entirety.

(photo taken from my awesome flip phone ) –>

Also, this is an excerpt from my ebook Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors. Specifically, chapter 8.

Willpower book

Intro: the controversy

Scientists often liken willpower to a muscle: it’s strengthenable and tirable. You have a limited amount of it, but in a pinch, you can increase your supply.

This is the theory, at least. Not all scientists agree with it, and it can get complex (i.e. the difference between willpower and self-control).

However, going off of this model, I’ve tested various methods of “charging my backup generator.” And they seem to concur with the idea willpower is muscle-like. So let’s go over some ways how to increase willpower.

Fingers turning a willpower button and setting it on the highest position, green tones.

1. Focus on one challenge at a time

Research has consistently shown that people who try to quit more than one habit at a time fail at all of them, and sooner. Sometimes they find it harder to want to quit again, having experienced miserable failure. (Demonizing the vice is a common reaction to learned helplessness.)

Just as it’s harder to learn two good habits at once, it’s harder to quit two bad habits at once. Your focus will be scattered, and your energy and motivation more quickly depleted.

Singular focus improves your chances of success.

2. Minimize stress

You could say all relapses happen due to some form of stress. Hence, urge surfing is the best strategy no matter what stress you face.

When you’re stressed, you have less willpower. That’s because willpower helps you handle life’s little stressors.

So learn to recognize your personal signs of stress and release it through a healthy alternative before it gets high enough that you “need” porn, TikTok, CoD, etc. to keep the stress away. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Here are some example emotional triggers:

  • loneliness
  • boredom
  • physical exhaustion or emotional exhaustion
  • this table of gamer motivations (bottom of the article)
  • feeling worthless or not good enough / hurt ego
  • wanting to delay work
  • beauty in an ugly world
  • insomnia
  • pure habit / “why not?”
  • fear of future cravings
  • FOMO

And here are some example quick-fixes:

distressed man pushes on walls of gigantic box, feeling claustrophobic

3. Get enough rest

When you’re physically tired, your willpower is low, too.* Stay away until you sleep on it, and leave your phone far away from the bed, in a different room or in a time-lock safe if possible. Buy a traditional alarm clock if you tend to scroll or watch a lot lying down.

Another useful tip: tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow, but not today. Often you’ll forget or be in a state that you don’t care anymore when you remember.

* Evidence is contested. It may not be sleep or fatigue but self-control itself that gets low. However, decision fatigue lowers self-control, so it’s the nonthinking element of rest that’s beneficial here.

4. Eat

Multiple studies have linked willpower to blood glucose levels. The takeaway here isn’t about sugar, though, it’s that you’re more vulnerable when you’re hungry. So inhale some (healthy) calories!

As the Snickers slogan goes, you’re not you when you’re hungry.

5. Conserve energy earlier in the day

If you know you have a stressful event in your day that might afflict your wound / activate your trigger, remember this.

Your stock of willpower is used across all domains. Not one stomach for dinner, one for dessert, so to speak. It’s all the same “stomach.”

Conserve energy and willpower earlier in the day by avoiding tough decisions or setting some up in advance (like what to wear, what to have for lunch, your schedule, etc.). This way you won’t be tempted when the day is over and you’re vulnerable.

But willpower is your backup generator, so don’t panic if you have to use a little. Just keep it as little as possible. Perfection doesn’t matter.

6. Tame the lightning

sage takes lightning into his body and shoots it out through his fingertips

See also:
Got cravings? Tame their lightning with the habit loop.

Trying to suppress thoughts or fight cravings produces more of them. It’s the same as trying to remain stoic while watching a tearjerking movie: you deplete your willpower when you fight emotions.

Simply channel the energy– “lightning”– into another pursuit. After a short time, once you lose yourself in an activity that engages your mind and body, the urge will pass.

You can also try my leaves on a stream technique.

Don’t try to escape negative or “bad” emotions. That’s how addictions form.

7. Exercise

Brief bursts of exercise, whether pushups, jumping jacks, dancing, or shadowboxing (anything vigorous), was found in a meta-analysis of 20 papers to improve blood flow to your prefrontal cortex. That’s the
executive, decision-making part of your brain. It’s the part that sees the forest for the trees and says I’ll be glad I abstained later.

So exercise can improve your self-control in the short-term, as well as reduce stress and give an outlet for your dopamine (excitement) and energy. It’s a strategy I continue to use.

Bonus points if you do it outdoors or with/around others.

silhouettes of people doing various exercises outdoors

8. Breathwork

My preliminary research suggests cravings are almost always accompanied by a faster heart rate, shallower breathing, and tunnel vision. Heart rate variability may affect self-regulation strength.

Slowing heart rate, thus, is the key. That’s the premise behind my free guide Breathe to Beat Bad Habits.

Oxygenating the blood and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, when done right, helps the prefrontal cortex take control. And there’s more than just simple exercises, there’s background things you can do to make this automatic. Read more in my guide.

submerged woman calmly bops nose of shark with her palm

9. Make habits, not decisions

If self-control is “overriding one’s habitual, normal, or natural response,” our aim should be to change the habitual response.

Every choice you make, the more options there are, the more you deplete your willpower. And using self-control may intensify desires.

“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity… so [you] can allocate attention to other tasks.”

– James Clear, Atomic Habits

One way to use less self-control is to make automatic habits. Start with implementation intentions—”if X, then Y”—for stressful situations you perceive might happen. (The Stoics called this premeditatio malorum.)
This blunts their emotional effect on you, should they occur.

Have a routine in place to handle any problematic emotion that triggers you into giving in, then automatically do it when you feel the slightest urge.

Tugade & Fredrickson extol that “resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences.” They popularized the “broaden-and-build” approach: that is, positive emotions counter negative ones. Good habits counter bad habits.

Never quit. Always substitute. That way you avoid the void.

You're not filling a void; you're creating one.

I go into this point more in Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors. (I can’t replicate it here because it builds on the knowledge from chapters 1 and 5.)

10. Notice signs of depletion

Often our actions feel like knee-jerk reactions to thoughts. But they don’t have to be!

Let’s take stress as an example. Just say these out loud:

  • “I’m feeling a lot of stress right now.”
  • “I’m having the thought ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now.'”
  • “I’m noticing I’m having the thought ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now.'”

Of course, change “stress” to whatever your experience is.

In that little pause lies your freedom to choose. To think, not react.

11. Don’t resist

“To fight with desire is hard; whatever it wishes, it buys at the price of soul.”

– Heraclitus

Hepler et al. found that the conventional wisdom of “fighting” temptations led to people giving in more often. Using active words like “fight,” “control myself,” and “overcome” in your inner voice makes the effort seem more… effortful. And our brains like to spend as little energy as possible.

Meanwhile, inaction words like “pause,” “stop,” or “don’t” were more effective at reducing the unwanted behavior. So instead of “fighting,” just be lazy– it’s easier!

In their words, “…motivation for inaction facilitates self-control, whereas motivation for action hinders self-control.”

Keep calm and carry on.

(This is only part one of the famous phrase, of course. The second part is “Freedom is in peril; defend it with all your might.”

12. The nothing alternative

Try this: instead of the usual “thing I don’t want to do X” or “fun thing I want to do Y”, make your equation like this: “thing I don’t want to do X” or “nothing.” Nothing is easier, like I said in #11.

This is something I do for writing: sometimes I need a short break to brainstorm and do some intentional mind-wandering. But typically, you won’t want to do nothing.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the authors describe this as precommitment. Basically, “if X, then Y.” It’s similar to #9.

It’s also easier to make something impossible– “nothing”– via an external limit. My favorite blockers are Freedom, Cold Turkey, and the more technical Pluckeye. You can also try the basic strategy in my free guide,
Curate Your Social Media (so you stop falling down the vortex).”

Curate your social media FBTW

13. Reward yourself

Small rewards for small tasks, bigger ones for bigger tasks. Obviously, don’t use a derailing reward. When you have to rely on your backup generator– willpower– rewards for not giving in can be helpful.

Candy, a print book, lying down for a bit, a foam roller, a bath, a long walk outside– whatever keeps you steady in a pinch.

As I said in my article Craving is something you actively do, the dopaminergic reward of anticipation enhances the reward. So work and anticipate a better reward. The reward is better after work (even including the “cognitive work” of beating an urge). As they say, hunger is the best sauce.

14. Act happy

As I show in chapter 4 in my book, the Emotion Regulation (ER) research has proven many times that acting happy has the highest effect on repairing a negative mood. (more than twice as effective as the second-best)

Stress is, at base, non-acceptance. It’s lack, or just perceived lack. (Your brain invents all sorts of reasons to go back to your vice)

Act happy, however you can get there. Then you won’t “lack,” and you won’t crave. I know, this is easier said than done.

woman holds sign with happy face over her own face

15. Don’t use streaks!

Keeping track via streaks was also recommended in the Willpower book. It may boost self-efficacy.

But while this strategy is popular in certain subreddits and forums, it hinges on an all-or-nothing score. You’re amazing, or you’re nothing. And you’ll be nothing at day one again and again until you give up and accept learned helplessness.

Instead of climbing mountains and falling down, walk ahead on a flat plain. Easy step by easy step. Committed action by committed action.

(I modified this from a scene in a BBC show called Peaky Blinders. It’s from this short clip. (warning: YouTube Shorts))

I prefer Muhammad Ali’s advice, myself:

“Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”

– Muhammad Ali

marking off days clean on a calendar

Takeaways: willpower

  • Don’t rely on willpower. It’s your backup generator.
  • Charge it through simple everyday habits and life’s little stressors won’t derail you.
  • The goal is to encourage good habits, not just to eliminate bad habits. You break habits by making habits.

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