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Willpower – you probably hear the word thrown around often enough. Run faster, jump higher, get more work done with… Willpower! It is the Mjolnir to your Thor.
But like, what actually is it? How does it work?
And if it’s all I need to succeed, then why am I not a career superstar and perfect homemaker who also runs marathons on the weekends?
Willpower is a tool. It is one of many tools that your fancy, modern human brain affords you. It helps you shape your life the way you want it to be. But just like every other tool, it’s not perfect; it can do some jobs well, but certainly not every job.
That said, this particular tool is instrumental to personal growth. It can help you go that extra mile, it can help you take your work to the next level, and it can help you find that well of strength where you thought there was none. But it’s no use at all if we don’t first understand how it actually works and how to use it properly.
It’s All in Your Head
What begins as magic can only remain so until science finds an explanation for it. Willpower is no exception. It’s still a superpower, just… one that we have an explanation for.
As Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in The Willpower Instinct, self control starts with an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. The PFC is a relatively modern region of the brain, somewhat recently evolved. It is responsible for some of our more complex executive thinking, like managing our behavior and making decisions.
What we call willpower is a cognitive behavior directed by the PFC. That behavior is a tool we can use to control urges that come from more instinctive parts of the brain.
Take eating for instance. People feel an instinctive pull towards sweet and/or sugary foods. Sugar-rich foods are not the best thing for us in excess. But from a survival perspective, they’re great at fending off starvation when all food is scarce.
When you look at a bowl of M&Ms, an instinct deep in your ancient lizard-brain says “sugar! I need it to survive!” even though you know full well you have leftover stir-fry in the fridge and you aren’t about to starve.
You know you don’t actually need-need the M&Ms. In fact you’ll probably be healthier if you don’t have them. So this is where you can use the conscious decision-making of your PFC (that is, your willpower) to override that urge and skip the candy. This time.
Executive thinking can temporarily take the wheel from instincts and say, “actually, no. I hear what you’re saying, instincts, but that’s not the right call. So I’m going to make the decision this time.” That is willpower.
How We Use Willpower
This tool, this check against our natural impulses, is in constant use throughout the day. It’s not just those obvious “dig deep and get it done” moments, like finishing a workout or pulling an all-nighter. Willpower protects you from countless little impulses and urges every day.
If I helped myself to a hearty bowl of ice cream every time ice cream crossed my mind, I’d start to look like a bowl of ice cream in no time at all. And a melty one at that – blobby, amorphous, and for some reason wet. But every time I choose not to have ice cream, it’s a small act of willpower.
This same manner of self-control helps to regulate social behavior.
When you get the urge to call your coworker Greg a dumbass, even if he totally is, you know that telling him so is probably not the best thing for your working dynamic. Willpower is the voice in your head that checks that impulse and helps you hold your tongue.
By now you may be seeing how a tool like this is also instrumental in helping you reach your major life goals.
Goals that are worth achieving require you to do hard things. There are always urges to stop, or give in, or take an easier road. Willpower helps you commit to the path you set out on.
Getting in shape, hitting a career milestone, amassing large savings, these are difficult things. When you feel the resistance of them, you’ll be drawn to an easier route.
Executive thinking gives you the power to fight that urge and charge ahead toward your goals. The more of it, the more effective it can be. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
The Willpower Muscle
Because self-control is a physiological process occuring in the brain, it is susceptible to the same constraints that the rest of your body and brain have. As useful as it is, it’s not all-powerful.
In a sense, willpower functions like a muscle. It:
- Uses physical energy, and wears out as you use it more
- Functions poorly and is not of much use when it is worn out
- Needs rest (sleep) to heal and recharge
- Can develop greater strength and stamina over time through training and exercise
This is good news and bad news. It means we can strengthen this power just like any other muscle. But, it also highlights why it is not the universal magic answer to every problem.
Picture it as any other muscle group. You use your arm muscles all day long. When you push them to do extra work (like lifting weights or carrying your new refrigerator up the stairs into the house), they’ll become stronger.
But in the short term the extra work will make your arms tired. They need time to rest and repair. And if you overexert your arms, you’ll barely be able to use them at all until they recover.
The same constraints apply to your self-control.
Hangry Hangry Hippocampus
Have you ever been “hangry?” Felt that unapologetic, snappy grouchiness that happens when you’ve been hungry for too long and need food?
What’s happening is reduced self control due to fatigue.
When your brain is tired and doesn’t have enough calories, your PFC becomes sluggish and unresponsive. That means willpower is less present to moderate your behavior and hold back your cranky comments. And so everyone else gets to deal with you.
Situations like this can happen quite easily. Low impulse control is also common late at night, particularly after a long or difficult day. You’re most likely to have worn out willpower at night because you’ve been using it all day and it’s exhausted. Self control is wiped out, which leads to crankiness, poor eating, and other unhelpful behaviors.
Willpower is in use so frequently that most of the time we don’t even notice it happening.
Every time you do the right thing when you don’t want to, it uses some of this resource. Every impulsive purchase you don’t make, every time you walk past the candy bowl, every scathing email you don’t send to Greg – each takes a small toll, which adds up.
This is called decision fatigue, and it’s the nemesis of reliable willpower.
With just food alone, you’re probably drastically underestimating how many times a day you use willpower to make a deliberate choice. One study found that the average person makes about 221 food decisions PER DAY. For me, they’re mostly ice cream-related.
The willpower muscle can help you, and it very often does. But if you rely on it too heavily throughout the day, it will give out on you when you need it most.
Do you remember the last time you moved to a new house or apartment? After a day like that, full of heavy lifting and hauling, even something so simple as lifting a gallon of milk becomes a monumental task.
A day full of decision fatigue has the same effect on your self-control.
Let’s look at how we can leverage greater willpower without exhausting it and rendering it useless.
When to use it (and when not to)
So now for the real question: how do we actually use willpower to move forward and accomplish our dreams if it’s running out all the time?
Remember, it works just like a muscle. And in order to get the most strength and reliability out of a physical muscle group, you need to do two things:
- Challenge it, put it to the test, train it to become stronger over time.
- Give it sufficient rest so you can still count on it when you need it.
The same is true for willpower: a deliberate balance of exercise and rest create the strongest result with the greatest endurance.
So the first thing you can do to improve your willpower is to use it a lot. And the second thing is… wait for it… keep waiting… to not use it. Ha! Are we having fun yet?
How the hell are we supposed to use a tool that has only two rules, if they are diametrically opposed?
As with so many things, success and failure lie on opposite sides of the line of intentionality.
In order to make your willpower the best asset to you that it can be, you must increase the moments where you are deliberately challenging your willpower, while decreasing the moments where you are unconsciously draining it.
Let’s take a closer look at each in turn, and see how we can consciously balance them.
The Willpower Workout
Just like there are many ways to exercise for stronger legs, bigger arms, or a healthier heart, there are many things you can do to strengthen your self control and impulse management.
Fortunately, all are things that are worth doing for other reasons anyway. You may even be doing some of them already:
The simplest way to strengthen your willpower is to intentionally test it. Put yourself at odds with your natural impulses to practice overcoming them. Fasting, for example, challenges and thereby strengthens your ability to uphold a commitment.
Waking up earlier without snoozing your alarm also takes significant self-control. Or you can go to a store you like, and buy nothing. Anytime you change a routine or start a new habit is a chance to embrace this sort of challenge.
Adding to the pile of reasons it’s so important to move your body from time to time, it’s beneficial to your ability to make decisions and manage your behavior and impulses. Exercise is great for blood flow. Blood flow is great for juicing up your brain for all the cool stuff it can do, like feeling happy and avoiding bad decisions.
On top of that, exercise is a textbook willpower challenge – when your body starts to say “I’m done,” your brain has the option to say “no you’re not, not yet.” This engages your willpower drive and trains it to be stronger.
Another willpower double-whammy, breathing meditation is great for two reasons here. First, slowing down your breathing through meditation stimulates blood flow to the brain, and just like exercise, stimulates the prefrontal cortex.
Second, the meditation practice itself is yet another willpower challenge. Each time you draw your attention away from a stray thought and back to your breath, you practice mastery over your thoughts. This is another form of willpower, of managing your impulses.
Reserve your self-control
Willpower challenges are great for developing the strength of your decision-making over time, but far less so when they have to compete with all of the things that are unconsciously draining your energy.
Muscles need more than exercise. They also needed to be protected from exhaustion so that we can continue to rely on them. If your willpower is constantly being sapped, you won’t be able to use it to elevate yourself. Try some of these strategies to guard your willpower and take it back for yourself:
Own Your Sleep Cycle
As we’ve established, rest is how you heal and refuel your willpower, along with the rest of you. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, and you’ll be much better prepared to make difficult decisions.
We also know that willpower reserves are the highest in the morning, and lowest late at night, just like physical stamina. The more recently you’ve slept, the more full your reserves will be. Unhealthy triggers are most dangerous at night, so be prepared for them. But also give yourself a little grace for not being your best self to resist them.
Reduce Decision Fatigue
Try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you’ll need to constantly rely on your willpower. Treat it as precious, because otherwise you’ll waste it. If you’re a shopper, the mall is a barrage of willpower-dependent choices, saying yes or no to so many shiny appealing things you could buy.
Ward off decision fatigue either by setting clear guidelines for yourself ahead of time (“I’m only here to buy pants, and nothing else,”) or by avoiding the scenario entirely. Skip the mall, hide the candy dish, don’t even talk to Greg if you can avoid it! Try to set up your day to minimize the times you’ll need to rely on manual self-control.
Set Up Easy Landings
Some activities and events deal a far harder blow to your willpower reserves than others. For instance, a high-pressure exam, a heavy workout, or a trying day on the job. Do your best to stay rested and well-fed ahead of time.
And if you know you’re going into a situation that will wear you out, you can prepare for the more vulnerable you that will be coming out the other side. Skip the retail therapy, avoid driving past your favorite drive-thru, and don’t leave cookies on the counter if you won’t be able to say no to them later on.
Okay Fine, You Can Be Thor.
Willpower can take you where you’re going when every other sign is pointing the opposite way. If you know how to use it (and how not to use it), you can crush countless obstacles, both internal and external, that would waylay you from your goals.
It is a mighty hammer, and it can be your Mjolnir, but only if you are willing to be its worthy Thor. That doesn’t come easy.
You can deliberately challenge your willpower to train it and strengthen your self-control. But if you’re not careful to set up your day so that you don’t overuse it, then a million little bites will suck the willpower right out of you. It can do a lot, but not everything.
When you can balance these two strategies – exercise and rest – you can develop a massive well of self-control, and use it to build any life that you envision.