The Power of Willpower
By Jillian Broaddus
No matter what your goals are, it’s safe to say that you won’t achieve them without a certain degree of willpower. After all, changing any habit is difficult and uncomfortable.
However, we live in a world where we often don’t necessarily need willpower: after all, we’re surrounded by instant gratification. We can promptly receive a barrage of compliments and encouragement as soon as we post anything on social media. We can order items with a tap of a finger, and receive them on our doorstep before the start of a new day. We can find any information we seek within a matter of seconds. Therefore, it’s no wonder we often think we lack willpower when it comes to the important stuff: healthier eating habits, learning a new skill, or chasing anything which isn’t guaranteed to come to fruition within a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, or days.
Plus, it can be easy to buy into the gimmick that certain people are simply born with higher degrees of self-control. It can make us feel better to convince ourselves that willpower is an innate, uncontrollable thing. It’s comfortable to think that we’re doing our best and that those doing better – eating healthier, exercising harder, working longer hours – are simply gifted with higher degrees of self-discipline.
However, the opposite is true: willpower can be learned and grown. Greater potential resides within each and every one of us. We must only tap into it, and grow our “willpower muscle.”
In 1996, Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment that birthed the modern conception of willpower – and inspired thousands of subsequent studies – described by The Atlantic as “downright evil.” In the trial, Baumeister kept 67 study participants in a room filled with the aroma of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, and teased them by showing them an assortment of chocolate confections. While some subjects were allowed to indulge in the desserts, the subjects in the experimental condition were asked to eat radishes instead. Immediately following, in a seemingly unrelated exercise, participants were given a persistence-testing puzzle to complete. Experimenters found that those who ate radishes “made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants and control group that only joined the latter phase of the study.” Ultimately, those who had to endure pungent vegetables instead of mouth-watering sweets could no longer find the will to engage in another tortuous task.
These findings proved something significant about willpower: it could be depleted. Self-control is not a skill to be mastered, but rather a muscle to be exercised that can be strengthened, can grow fatigued, and can become ineffectual.
How to Grow Your Willpower Muscle
So, considering this, how can we improve our willpower and achieve more in our daily lives? Here are some of our best, tried and true tips:
Fuel Your Body: Willpower has also been shown to be tied to the body’s basic energy supply. This is why we’re more likely to binge on junk food when we’re heartbroken, make rash decisions when we’re exhausted, or grow irritable towards others when we’re sick. So, make sure you’re well-rested and filling your body with good nutrition and enough water to set yourself up for success!
Prioritize Your Day: If willpower is a muscle, it will inevitably become fatigued over the course of the day. Even things we don’t realize are depleting our energies and tenacity tanks – such as the myriad of minute decisions we face, minute by minute – exercise our willpower muscle. Therefore, prioritize the tasks that need your focus and resolve for early in the day, when your willpower is at its strongest!
Exercise: Strengthening other muscles may actually be a key to strengthening our willpower muscle! An Australian experiment enrolled two dozen people in two months of a physical exercise program, and subsequently scrutinized participants’ daily lives. They found that increased willpower at the gym resulted in greater willpower at home. In other words, “Once willpower becomes stronger, it touches everything!”
Start Somewhere: In order to strengthen your quads, you wouldn’t set off by running a marathon. Set small, achievable goals to get started on exercising your willpower muscle: Wake up fifteen minutes earlier, read ten more pages every night, or put the junk food out of reach, and see your willpower grow.
Believe In It: A series of Stanford University studies by Veronika Job and colleagues proved that when we believe our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. And, conversely, those who believe willpower is not fixed will demonstrate greater self-discipline. So, start with convincing yourself, and watch as you prove yourself right!
Reward Yourself: Although we’ve spoken negatively about instant gratification and the ramifications in our world, it’s basic human nature to crave recognition and reward. So, don’t deprive yourself! When you find yourself demonstrating self-control, recognize it and reward yourself. Set small milestones in your path to your goal, and celebrate wins along the way!
Why Develop Willpower?
Why put ourselves through the discomfort of growing our willpower muscle? After all, it’s much easier to rest at the level we’re naturally at and stay in the comfort of the status quo. However, for one, making any major habit change to achieve anything we haven’t yet before will require extra willpower. Plus, a stronger willpower muscle has been shown to accompany countless of other benefits:
In Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Test, children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward or waiting fifteen minutes for a double-portion of the reward. The study then followed the children into their adult lives, where they found that those children who had delayed gratification – and, by conclusion, had stronger willpowers – were found to be more successful as adults (measured in terms of education, work performance, health, and other success-based metrics).
So, as Vince Lombardi said, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” And thankfully, just like strength or knowledge, will can be learned just the same! So, if you want to achieve everything you dream of, start with training your willpower muscle.
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