It’s been amply demonstrated that people with a good dollop of willpower are better off on nearly every front than those who lack this precious commodity.  Those with willpower tend to

  • Have longer lasting relationships
  • Make more money and go further in their careers
  • Manage stress and deal with conflict better
  • Overcome adversity

In fact, having willpower is a better predictor of success than intelligence, charisma or empathy.  According to the American Psychological Association, Americans cite the lack of willpower as the primary reason they fail to meet their goals.

OK. I’m sold.  I need more willpower.  Where do I sign up?

One option is the wildly popular class, “The Science of Willpower” offered to the public through Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program.  It’s taught by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct. 

Participants have such diverse goals as quitting smoking, getting out of debt or being a better parent.  They’ve been very successful, and in more ways than they bargained for.  It seems that the willpower they learned for one endeavour spills over into other areas, so their lives improve on several fronts at once.  And the techniques were as useful for the recovering alcoholic as they were for the internet gambling addict.

But what is willpower exactly?  Most of us think of it as the ability to withstand temptation, but it actually has three faces:

  • I Will – Say yes when you want to say no  – overcome procrastination and avoidance
  • I Won’t – Say no when you want to say yes – resist temptation
  • I Want – The over-arching theme – the motivation that makes I Will and I Won’t worthwhile.  I want to be a doctor, I want to be slim and attractive, I want a comfortable retirement…

I Wants are usually longer-term in nature. They’re the “big stuff” that requires planning and sustained effort.  I Will and I Won’t comprise the temptations we try to avoid and the actions we need to take (but avoid taking). and are often immediate and short-term.

Willpower has a few enemies. Stress is one of them, and is directly attributable to our biology. When triggered, the fight or flight response pushes us to immediacy – the here and now. Blood is diverted from “non-essentials”, including the neo-cortex, home of our longer-term plans, or I Wants. In other words, our survival can’t be in two places at once.

Things like sleep deprivation, poor diet and lack of exercise are tremendous contributors to lack of control.  So we make poor choices, end up obese, disinclined to exercise and sleep poorly. It’s a vicious cycle.

On sustained basis, willpower is enhanced through optimal brain functioning, where our primal brains and our neo-cortex hum along in harmony. As we develop more self control, we re-wire our brains, and our neo-cortex gets the edge. Neurons that fire together, wire together.

As we spoke about in an earlier blog, Willpower is Waaay Overrated, our daily dose of willpower has a finite capacity. We can’t draw on it indefinitely without replenishing it. The biggest consumers are distractions, making decisions and exercising self-control (read daily, modern life).  And with our increased complexity in lifestyle, we have an unprecedented array of ways in which to tempt ourselves – one click purchases for the shopaholic, pizza delivery and drive-throughs for the weight challenged, and an overwhelming abundance of stuff we never even knew we wanted greeting us on every screen and billboard.

The solution?  Think of Willpower as a precious resource. Make the best use of your daily allotment, and try to expand that capacity.

5 Ways To Conserve Willpower

  1. Pick your battles.  Don’t squander willpower on distractions and temptations. If you’re trying to save money, unsubscribe from all those juicy, tempting emails announcing sales. If you’re trying to lose weight, get all that sweet and fatty stuff out of the house. As the saying goes, don’t waste your time on the cheap stuff.
  2. Build your Willpower muscle. McGonigal’s class found that the willpower benefit was much greater than the original goal. Overall, their diets improved, they exercised more, cut back on cigarettes, alcohol & caffeine. Their self-control muscle was strengthened by increasing the brain’s ability to pause before acting, and this benefit translated to many areas of their lives.
  3. Small Goals: Select a trivial I Will, like flossing your teeth (sorry all you dental hygenists), or an I Won’t such as littering your speech with  “like”, or “you know”.  Resolve to tend to this daily, no exceptions. The relative unimportance of the willpower challenge allows the muscle of self-control to improve without internal angst (see don’t wake the amygdala in our previous blog One Small Step).
  4. Exercise: Walk, meditate, go to a yoga class, or engage in progressive relaxation. One study found that just three hours of meditation lead to improved attention and self-control.  After 11 hours, researchers could see changes in the brain. Very cool.
  5. Relax: Make sure you build relaxation into your day, and this doesn’t mean watching TV.  According to Herbert Benson, cardiologist with Harvard Medical School, real relaxation that boosts willpower encompasses both physical and mental rest, when the
    • heart rate and breathing slow down
    • blood pressure drops
    • muscles release tension
    • brain takes a break from planning the future or analyzing the past

We will be exploring more of Kelly McGonigal’s fascinating insights on Willpower in upcoming blogs, so stay tuned!


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