“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.” ~ Thomas Henry Huxley, Collected Essays of Thomas Henry Huxley
The need for willpower
Has this ever happened to you? You set a goal to lose weight and decide you need to eat a healthier diet. So you pass up the doughnuts at work, eat a salad for lunch, snack on almonds or raw veggies in the afternoon . . . then at home, after work, you find yourself sitting on the 2nd shelf of the refrigerator, eating everything in sight. Or you decide to start an exercise program and to go to the gym directly after work every day. You load your gym bag in the car with every intention of going to the gym after work. But at the end of the day, you are so tired you drive straight home – past the gym – and collapse in a heap in front of the TV. What happened? Where did your willpower go?
“Success requires persistence,” said Martin Seligman, the “father” of Positive Psychology, “the ability to not give up in the face of failure.” Seligman and the late Chris Peterson, who developed the 24 Character Strengths and Virtues, called willpower one of the most important strengths to develop. [Miller] Indeed, developing the other strengths often depends on having the ability to practice them when we don’t really want to — to do them when they ought to be done. In other words, by using willpower.
How to build willpower
Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in the psychology of willpower, has shown that willpower is like a muscle. As you use it during the day, your willpower “muscle” weakens and becomes depleted. The good news is that, like other muscles, you can strengthen your willpower through exercise.
There are a number of things you do during the course of the day that weaken the willpower “muscle”. Being aware of and avoiding these where possible lessens the drain on your willpower and helps to conserve it.
- Making decisions. Every time you make a choice, you use up some of your willpower stores. [Achor]
- Suppressing normal urges, such as saying or doing something inappropriate, like laughing during a serious discussion. [Miller]
- Trying not to think about something (“Don’t think of a white elephant.”) as when you need to concentrate on a project at work while you have an important personal issue to deal with. [Miller]
- Having conflicting goals, such as passing up a plate of cookies for a healthier snack. [Achor]
Two practices have been shown to replenish or strengthen willpower: laughter and sugar. Making yourself smile by watching a funny video, reading a joke, or hearing a funny story gives your willpower a boost. And, as Baumeister discovered, willpower is powered by glucose, so drinking a glass of lemonade or sweet tea (with real sugar) has been shown to completely replenish willpower. [Baumeister]
This is a strength that anyone can improve upon with practice. You can perform exercises to practice the strength of self-regulation in order to strengthen your self-control and willpower. Here are some suggested ways to practice. Perhaps these will stimulate other ideas for you.
- Follow a specific, regular exercise program
- Self-monitor and maintain your finances
- Self-monitor and maintain your daily food intake
- Self-monitor and correct your posture
It’s also useful to track your progress in some way, such as through journaling or keeping a daily log of the behavior.
Act “As If”
“If you want a quality,” said William James, American philosopher and the first person to teach a psychology course, “act as if you already have it.”
Here is another way to improve your willpower (or any other quality you want to cultivate). Act as if you already have it. In research studies, people have raised their happiness levels simply by changing their facial expression to one of a happy person, relaxed and smiling. Acting as if they were happy actually made them happier.
In another study, researchers determined that motivated people tensed their muscles in preparation for leaping into action. So they had people tense their muscles, such as making a fist or flexing their biceps, before they were presented with a tempting choice. They found that the act of “firming one’s muscles can help firm willpower and firmed willpower mediates people’s ability to withstand immediate pain, overcome tempting food, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided doing so is seen as providing long term benefits”.
Strange as it may sound, acting as if you have more willpower can help you have more willpower.
Here are some action steps to help you put these ideas into practice.
- Be aware of all the tiny decisions you make day after day – what to wear, what or when or where to eat, etc. “Pre-decide” as many of these as you can by making the decision once, then doing the same thing each time the choice comes up (so that it’s not really a choice any more).
- Use the ideas we’ve discussed before to install habits for the desirable behaviors you want to follow. A habit makes the action automatic. You no longer have to tap in to your limited willpower to perform it.
- Act as if. If you are about to be faced with a temptation, try the exercise of tensing your muscles to boost your willpower.
Use willpower wisely
Don’t depend on your abilities of self-regulation to remain strong all day. By learning the mechanics of how willpower works, you can conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions. By taking controlled measures to exercise it regularly, you can make this important strength even stronger. And that is living the Excelerated Life!
Excelerated willpower — becoming highly self-regulated — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010
Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower – Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011
Miller, MAPP, Caroline Adams and Michael B. Frisch. Creating Your Best Life. New York: Sterling, 2009