1. Eat a Turkey Sandwich
On average, we spend four hours each day actively resisting things we desire. Every time we refuse to succumb—say, by washing the dishes before watching TV or by holding our temper—our bodies draw on our store of glucose, which carries energy to the muscles and brain. When our glucose levels get low, our willpower weakens. To keep it high, eat regular meals that are full of protein and good carbohydrates, like a sandwich of lean meat and cheese packed between two slices of whole-wheat bread. And never start a challenging task on an empty stomach.
Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, and the author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength ($28, amazon.com).
2. Anticipate Roadblocks
When you start pursuing a goal, consider what might interfere with your plans. Always assume that glitches will come up and that your motivation may falter when they do. So if you’re trying to cook more, do your food shopping well ahead of time. And make several meals the weekend beforehand, in case you don’t get home in time to prepare dinner. Having a fallback makes it more likely that you’ll accomplish your aims.
Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist based in Northern California and a coauthor of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College ($26, amazon.com).
3. Do the Opposite of What You Normally Do
Like a muscle, your resolve can be strengthened over time with practice, even if you’re not trying to correct a specific bad habit. Anytime you modify your routine, you’re developing self-control. For example, try to brush your teeth or open doors with your nondominant hand. Once you’ve succeeded in making a tiny change, you can work toward accomplishing something more substantive.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Columbia University and the author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals ($16, amazon.com).
4. Choose a Reward in Advance
When changing your behavior (like trying to exercise each day), pick something—whether it’s a piece of chocolate or relaxing on the couch for 30 minutes—that you’ll treat yourself to once you’ve accomplished your objective. It could be months before you enjoy exercise on its own merits. So, in the meantime, when you look at your running shoes, you should think, I’m going jogging because I want the prize that is waiting for me when I finish my workout. Placing all your attention on the end goal keeps you from being as focused on the pain or effort of the activity itself.
Charles Duhigg is a New York City–based investigative reporter for the New York Times and the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It ($28, amazon.com), to be released in March.
Has beating yourself up ever helped you stick to a diet or stay within your budget? Probably not. You may even have ended up indulging more. (To wit: People with credit-card debt who are hard on themselves tend to rack up bigger charges than they would have otherwise.) Instead, ask yourself this: When am I likely to err again, and how will I prevent that from happening? Once you’ve figured out how to avoid the problem in the future, let it go.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, and the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It ($26, amazon.com).