Can trying to sit up straighter help you save more?
Go ahead and laugh — humor can improve your ability to exercise willpower and self-discipline.
And so can repeated small efforts to force yourself to do some small act like refrain from slumping.
These and other findings are part of recent research into what makes willpower tick, and what we can do to strengthen willpower so we are better at saving and other personal financial challenges.
Build Your Willpower Muscle
The first thing you need to know about willpower is that it’s not just something you’re born with, like blue eyes.
Whether you have a lot of self-control or only a little is also affected by the situation.
For instance, if you have recently done something that required a lot of self-control, you are likely to have less of it to draw on if you immediately tackle something else calling for willpower.
“Research has shown that we have a limited pool of self-control,” explains Jaye L. Derrick, a research scientist at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.
So when you exert self-control, you will have less for the next effortful thing. “It comes back eventually, but in the short-term we may be more likely to behave impulsively,” Derrick says.
You can think of reserves of willpower as similar to reserves of physical strength.
If you’ve just helped a friend move a sofa, you may need to rest a bit before tackling the refrigerator.
Similarly, if you’ve just resisted clicking the “buy” button for a new gadget you really lusted for, you may be more likely to splurge on something else if you immediately visit the mall.
Exercise It Regularly
Taking a break isn’t all you can do to regain willpower. Some studies show that a person’s blood glucose decreases after exerting self-control, and consuming glucose increases self-control.
However, it seems to take more than simply gobbling glucose. The key seems to be how the body allocates glucose. Attention and motivation also appear to play a role.
“When people are not motivated to work at something, they do not allocate the glucose to do it,” Derrick explains.
If you can make a task fun, that can also increase motivation and, therefore, self-control.
Likewise, repeating positive affirmations to yourself. Social involvement is another motivation-maker, as is humor.
Does that mean having fun with others can make it easier to summon willpower? It does.
Another thing you can do to increase willpower is exercise it.
Doing small acts of self-control such as squeezing a handgrip or solving a puzzle for a period of three weeks has been shown to help people quit smoking, Derrick says.
Another researcher, Helen Boucher of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, says you can build willpower to help achieve financial and other goals by such seemingly unrelated acts as trying to improve your posture and brush your teeth left-handed if you are right-handed, and vice versa.
“It’s similar to building physical strength when lifting weights,” Boucher says.
Take it One Step at a Time
Will this really work when it comes to money? Yes, and in fact it seems to work better with money.
Some of Boucher’s research found that when people were subtly reminded of money after doing one effort-requiring task, they had more willpower available for a subsequent task.
“We think this is due to the idea that money symbolizes strength and self-sufficiency,” she says.
In addition to taking positive steps to build willpower, there are things you can avoid to keep from sapping self-control.
For one thing, don’t try to do too much at once. This explains why so many people have trouble with New Year’s resolutions.
“People resolve to eat more healthily, exercise more, get more sleep, etc. all at once and it’s beyond what is possible given limited self-control resources,” Boucher says.
Also, be aware when you have had an experience that depletes self-control.
For instance, if you’ve been biting your lip all day to keep from snapping at an annoying colleague, it might not be best to go shopping immediately after work.
Likewise, strain in personal relationships may also sap willpower.
So a fight with your significant other is not a promising prelude to something requiring self-control.
Willpower research suggests a lot of ways to get better at self-control — choose your battles, don’t try to do too much, make effortful tasks fun and accept that taking an occasional break from perfect self-discipline can help you in the long run.
And, when all else fails, laugh.
Mark Henricks reports on finance, business, technology and other topics from Austin, Texas. He is the author of Not Just A Living: The Complete Guide to Creating a Business that Gives You A Life and other books. Visit him online or on Twitter @markhenricks.