5 facts I wish I would have known earlier about willpower

Willpower is the control you have over your attention, emotions and your behaviour. If that’s something you want to get a handle on, this article is for you.


Willpower is also referred to as self-regulation. It is the power that let’s you delay gratitude so that you achieve the goal you have rather than a quick feeling of pleasure. I like to think about it this way:


The mere action of forming a goal creates a discrepancy between what we currently have and what we ‘need’. In other words, we’re motivated. Of course, there are varying degrees of motivation, but let’s ignore that for the minute. Motivation is what gets you going in the direction of your goal. As long as that’s all nice and easy, without any major hurdles coming your way, you’re good.


Let’s say you want to exercise more often and for the first couple of weeks, you’re doing well. But then things are not so exciting anymore. One morning, you’re supposed to go to the gym, but you really don’t feel like it. It’s early in the morning, it’s cold, your gym mate has cancelled on you and staying in your warm bed just seems like the much nicer option, doesn’t it? Here comes the attention magnet emotion with big red blinkers on and a megaphone: ‘You gotta be kidding! Don’t like it! We’re not having it!’. Motivation starts to panic and looks over to his mate willpower. ‘Dude, we said we’d go, we said we want to do this regularly. Not going kind of looks a bit crappy on us – what to do?’ Immediately your mind looks for 'nicer' alternatives: ‘We could go later! Or maybe just skip this one – just this one time. No big deal. After all, we did a bigger than usual session last time.’ Anyone else relate to this theatrical mental performance?


What happens next depends on how strong your willpower is.


If your willpower is strong, your eyesight will barely touch the silver platter of viable alternatives presented to you by cognitive dissonance. Instead, you’ll keep your focus where it needs to be and do as you said you would. Sounds good, right? So what can you do to ensure your willpower is nice and fit? And what else should you know about it?


1) You can train it

Psychologist and Professor Kelly McGonical recommends to do tiny willpower exercises whenever you can. Whether you practice self-control when correcting your posture throughout the day, resist temptation to buy things you know you don’t need, tidy that drawer or make small efforts to tackle some bureaucratic chores you’ve been avoiding – it’s like a workout for your willpower muscle. And if you’re reminded of the practice of focus and attention through mindfulness, rightly so – both these practices have shown significant positive impacts on willpower. The more you practice mindfulness, the stronger your willpower. However, it’s also important to know that you can deplete your willpower.


2) It is limited

Imagine willpower like an energy drink. When things get tough, motivation sips from the willpower bottle to keep going. If that has already happened a few times that same day, chances are that bottle is empty. How full your bottle was to start, depends on your training regime mentioned above (i.e. willpower exercises and mindfulness practice).


Willpower is like an energy drink you have bottle of per day. Use it wisely and ensure to fill it up each day by training your willpower muscles and living a healthy lifestyle.


Which brings us to the third point.


3) You can maximise it through a healthy lifestyle

How well you slept the night before, how much you exercise, your blood sugar levels, alcohol in our system and the like – all these lifestyle factors will impact on your level of daily willpower. So there are some practices that kind of raise your willpower ‘set-point’ long-term, while others, like sleep and other self-control activities, which have a more immediate depletion effect on your willpower.


4) It’s hard to access when you’re stressed

One thing you can do when you find yourself in a tempting situation like the one described above is to slow your breathing, calm your nerves, question the nice alternatives your mind comes up with that will not lead to your goal and hope that your capacity to think rationally hasn’t left you yet.


5) Good habits will make you less reliant on it

If that all sounds hard to you, I get it. One way to avoid situations like these altogether is to build habits. Those good ones. By definition, habits are behaviours you do automatically, i.e. on autopilot and without thinking much about it. So that in the example above, you would just wake up, grab your bag and go to the gym, without questioning how attractive that behaviour is and coming up with other ideas (excuses).


If you’re interested in the art of building good habits, stay tuned for the next post.


Maike x


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