How Willpower Works and How to Get It

When we attempt to accomplish something difficult and challenging, what is the most important factor that determines if we succeed or fail? Most people would say that it is willpower and self-control, and to a large extent, they are correct, especially if what we are trying to achieve requires persistent effort. But there is much more to willpower and self-control than meets the eye. Understanding this and how our willpower works is one of the keys to attaining success.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower refers to our ability to delay instant gratification and resist our impulses in order to reap some future benefit. It is directly responsible for how well we ward off feelings, thoughts and temptations that do not serve us well. Willpower is often referred to as determination, discipline, gumption, and self-control. No matter what we call it, willpower is something that most of us wish we had more of.

What Are the Advantages of Willpower and Self-Control?

Willpower and self-control help us resist harmful impulses and thoughts. They give us the strength to shun bad behaviors that affect our well-being and that of others. They are key ingredients in the attainment of success because they facilitate persistent behaviors that afford us long-term benefit. Willpower helps us develop good habits and eliminate bad ones. It allows us to persist in difficult times and to act ‘gritty’. It also provides us with the fortitude to stick to our decisions and see things through even when we do not feel like it. Willpower is the most important determinant of success.

People who know how to harness the power of willpower are more likely to do better in school, have a better sense of self-worth, experience less stress, be healthier, be less likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, be more successful in their careers, have better relationships, and are happier overall. Clearly, willpower is key to high achievement.

How Willpower Works and What You May Not Know About It

Almost everyone in this world desires more willpower, but not everyone understands it well. Most people think that willpower is an unlimited resource that we can tap into at anytime. Phrases such as ‘just do it’ and ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ are all too common. When we see someone who is overweight we often immediately assume that person lacks willpower and self-control. The same holds true when we meet people who suffer from addiction, have destructive habits or are lazy. But is it really that simple?

Numerous studies have found that our willpower is, in fact, finite in nature. In other words, our willpower is not an unlimited resource that we can call on at any time. Our willpower gets depleted when we use it just as any other finite resource would. When we go to the gym when we are tired, wash the dishes immediately after a meal, choose the salad bar over the pizza, or save money instead of splurging, we are tapping into our willpower.

In study after study, it has been shown that when we exercise willpower we are more likely to have less of it to call on when needed soon after. In other words, our willpower is like the gasoline in our car. The more we use it, the less we have until we refill the tank. This finding is extremely important because finite resources need to be managed properly in order to replenish them and harness their power. We are misguided if we assume that our willpower is always at our beck and call as it used to be commonly believed. Because our willpower and self-control are limited, we need to treat them differently from an unlimited resource.

The prefrontal cortex part of our brains is responsible for our willpower. When we tap into our willpower, this part of the brain gets worked. If we try to do too much, the prefrontal cortex gets taxed and does not function as well. In fact, people who have just used a heavy dose of willpower have lower glucose levels. Why? Because our brains are high-energy organs that consume a lot of glucose when they are working hard. Willpower diminishes when this glucose is used faster than it is replenished. Further studies have shown that drinking sweetened lemonade to replenish glucose levels actually helps restore willpower. This does not mean that we should eat more candy. Eating complex carbs like brown rice, potatoes, beans, etc, help maintain our glucose levels by releasing energy gradually throughout the day.

Our willpower is like a fast-twitch muscle. It is meant to be used in short bursts and gets fatigued quickly. This has serious implications on the way we harness it. Because we now know that it is a finite resource, we need to use it wisely and discriminately. This explains why we are more likely to succumb to temptation and eat that piece of cake later in the day than in the morning. It is because we have depleted a lot of our willpower during the course of the day. It also explains why it is better to exercise early in the morning rather than late at night when we are more likely to succumb to the temptation of skipping our workout. Personally, I always try to exercise early because I know that my willpower suffers during the course of the day.

When our willpower resource is depleted, what happens is that we fall back on what we are used to doing. These are our habits. Habits are actions that we take either subconsciously or without much thought. Our habits are part of our routine and, with depleted willpower, we naturally resort to what we normally do. These habits can be either good or bad. Our subconscious mind does not know the difference.

This is why it is very important to instill good habits and routines. Habits, especially ones that have a domino effect and lead to other good habits, more than anything else, determine what we become. We use our willpower to create our habits, and then the habits in turn create us. Our habits are our default actions so it is essential to have ones that serve us well. What this does is ensure that our default behavior works for us and not against us. Using our scarce willpower to create good habits is an efficient way to use this limited resource.

Things That Deplete Our Willpower

Since we know that our willpower is finite in nature, it is important to know exactly what depletes it. Here are some things that affect it:

  • Doing things we do not enjoy
  • Resisting any sort of temptation
  • Attempting to impress other people
  • Trying to concentrate and block out distractions
  • Forming new habits and behaviors
  • Dealing with fear
  • Controlling our impulses
  • Sitting for a test or exam
  • Controlling anger
  • Managing stress

This is not a comprehensive list, but it sheds light on some of the things we encounter every day that affect our willpower levels. This is why it is essential to manage our willpower by applying it to things that really matter. And this is why default behaviors which we revert to (habits) when willpower gets depleted are so important.

How to Increase Willpower and Control Its Depletion

Since our willpower is a limited resource, it makes sense to know what factors increase its supply and mitigate its depletion.

Our Attitudes and Beliefs

Studies have shown that the more in touch we are with ourselves, the better we can mitigate willpower depletion. For example, if we exert willpower in order to please someone else, it causes more willpower loss than if we were to do it to meet our own goals and wants. Interestingly enough, when we believe that we have the willpower to accomplish something difficult, it seems to minimize its loss.

Our Positivity and Mood

If we are happier, more optimistic, and positive, our willpower loss is lessened. When we are in a great mood, we are better able to use and manage our willpower.

Our Food Intake and Glucose Levels

As previously discussed, when we exert willpower, we lower our glucose levels. By eating healthy and nutritious foods throughout the day, especially complex carbohydrates, we are able to give our willpower a boost.

Our Environment

When we make the effort to avoid temptation, we are in essence managing our willpower by using less of it. That is why our environment is so important. For example, if we avoid going to bars, we reduce the need to use our willpower to refrain from drinking alcohol. In other words, out of sight, out of mind.

Our Motivation

When we are highly motivated, studies have shown that we preserve our willpower more effectively. For example, if we do something difficult for someone we really care about, our motivation helps to mitigate willpower loss.

Having Good Habits and Routines

Since our willpower gets depleted and we default to our habits, it is important to incorporate good habits into our lives. Good habits help reduce the strain on our willpower because our actions become automatic.

Focusing on One Challenge at a Time

Since willpower is finite in nature, one way to preserve it is to focus on one challenging task at a time rather than a host of challenges.

Practice

Ironically, since willpower is like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets. It is very much like working out in the gym. The more we exercise a muscle, the stronger it gets.

Visualization

Research has shown that visualizing a positive outcome helps our willpower levels. For example, if we visualize successfully accomplishing a task, it reduces willpower drain.

Having a Plan

When we plan in advance how we will handle future temptations, we seem to get better at resisting it. For example, if we decide in advance that we will ask for a club soda and lime instead of an alcoholic drink when someone offers us a drink, we are better prepared to handle the temptation because we have rehearsed what we will do beforehand.

To conclude, willpower is a powerful tool that we have at our disposal, but we need to remember that it is finite and needs to managed. If we understand its nature and use it wisely, it becomes a powerful weapon in our arsenal.

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