The power of willpower

How do you accomplish your wildest dreams in the steady dwindling attention span of today’s modern world? Whether it’s losing weight, getting your dream business off the ground, or deciding to compete in your first sports competition. 

The answers to this question may seem simple enough. Hit the gym, start building your business step-by-step, eat healthy and restrict what you eat. But the truth is that in reality, it isn’t so simple. 

Many temptations derail our efforts and undermine our attempts to achieve our goals. Many times, we simply lack the strength needed to get on track. 

For whatever reason, we are sometimes unable to do the work or make the decisions required to accomplish our most important goals. The fact remains that every facet of our daily lives requires a dose of self-control. To maintain relationships, our diets, finances or even the smallest task like getting up from our beds and preparing for work. 

Willpower and self-control are at the center of this. Willpower is the ability to exercise self-control, and it can get tired, like our muscles, mind, and bodies. However, we can not only train our willpower through developing reward systems, working on our stress level, eating the right food, regular exercise, setting good goals and mindfulness. We can also play along with our willpower through preparing for if/then situations, identifying your WHY, creating good habits and an environment we thrive in.  

What is Willpower

There are many different definitions of what willpower is, but it is often used interchangeably with self-control. In essence, it’s your ability to resist short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals.

Willpower is the ability to do what matters, even when we don’t feel like doing it. It’s the ability to delay gratification to pursue long-term rewards. 

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A study from 2000 by M. Muraven and R.F. Baumeister investigates if willpower is like a muscle. Sometimes it can feel like it’s harder to resist eating that piece of cake than resisting it. That you’ll use more muscle power on the act of denying yourself the cake than the actual act of eating it. Even though it is the other way around, you use more energy to eat it than not. This process is a great example for this post because some internal process is required here. This process is self-control, or willpower if you will.

In his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength Roy Baumeister argues that whatever we seek, whether it be good health, happiness or financial security we can’t reach those goals without first learning how to harness our willpower or self-control.

Quite a lot of research has been conducted on willpower and self-control. Research in 1990s showed a clear correlation between the use of willpower in situation 1 and then the reduced willpower in situation 2. 

Glass with water
Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

Imagine a glass, filled with water, you use it up and have less and less to use. This is known as ego-depletion coined by Roy Baumeister. This study has been replicated several times.

However, newer research argues that it might not be this simple. Willpower is maybe not a glass that can run empty. It could be more about our personality and your habits, what you enjoy and not, a study by B.Galla and A. Duckworth shows. What we do know is that for some people exercising willpower is much easier than for others. 

In this post, we’ll have a look at this, what willpower is, how you can improve it and how you can make decisions and habits that will make it easier to make those tough decisions. 

We are not experts in this area. But we think it is super interesting, so what we have done is to have a look at different research we have been able to find (mind we haven’t read it all..because it is a lot) and combine it with our own experiences.  

Willpower and your WHY

Willpower can be divided into different variants based on your goals. Either what you should do, or what you shouldn’t do. But before you get there, you should identify your WHY

Why do you want to exercise willpower?
This can be that you want to lose weight, start exercising, look good in that dress, run a half marathon or a million other things. 

Why
Find your WHY
Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

This will lead you to the should or shouldn’t do.

First, what you should do to achieve what you want. It could involve adopting a novel routine, diet, or mindset change.

Ultimately, it requires you to say “yes, I will” to something.

For example, you have identified that you need to go to the gym 3 times a week, maintain a strict paleo diet so you can fit into a lovely dress you bought to attend a wedding in a couple of months. 

In this case, You have identified your “I will”. Even more, you have a compelling reason, a “WHY” to say “yes” to altering your life. 

The second variant of willpower involves something you should avoid or stop doing to achieve a goal or improve the quality of your life. 

For example, you’d like to quit eating unhealthy foods such as processed foods, candy and donuts and start living healthier and maybe even complete a half marathon. Or maybe live frugally to become financially independent. 

In these scenarios, you have your “I won’t”, the things you shouldn’t do so you can achieve the things that you want. Essentially, you should say “no” to these things.

Now, between your “I will” and “I won’t”, there’s a silent, inconspicuous third variant, this is the ability to remember to say yes or no when you should. 

This is where mindfulness comes in. I’ve written about that below. But what is important to remember here, is that mindfulness will help you identify and recognize this space when you’re in it, allowing you to make the right decision based on your WHY.

Self-control and willpower

Self-control and willpower are two sides of the same coin. Willpower sort of lets us exercise self-control. Willpower is sort of our mental reserves that fuel our self-control. Without willpower or in the case that our willpower is depleted, we lose or lack our self-control. 

In recent times, scientists have credited intelligence and willpower as the two biggest determinants of success. While many of us are familiar with the topic of intelligence right from our childhood, very little is known about the connection between success and willpower. The good news is that unlike intelligence, willpower can be nurtured and developed. 

Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes

In the 1960s a famous experiment was executed, it is known as the Marshmallow Test.

Marshmallow
Photo by Rebecca Ffreeman on Unsplash 

The Marshmallow test is well known for investigating the link between early gratification and later success in life. Newer research though shows that it might not be as easy to see a correlation as the test wants us to believe. 

Later research has critiqued the test for several things, but the main one being: 

  1. The test cases are only children of Stanford professors or students.
    Meaning that it was the test base was not varied enough. This is important because the children being from the upper or middle class could mean that they have been “trained” in the act of self-control or to desire long term goals from an early age. 
  2. This means that children from lower-income families who might choose to eat the marshmallow might not do it because of a lack of self-control or willpower. But because they are simply thought to seize the opportunity, not knowing when to get it again, or more dramatically, when to eat again.

Although, the research itself is still interesting and it does stand as a pillar within social psychology. 

The marshmallow test was conducted by Professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s. He wanted to test the long-term outcomes of exercising willpower and delayed gratification.

This test is commonly believed by many to be evidence of willpower as an accurate determinant of success in life. 

The test involved hundreds of children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old. Each child was brought into a private room and instructed to stay put on a chair with a single marshmallow placed on the table in front of them. 

The researcher makes a deal with the child. 

The researcher tells the child that he would leave the room for a couple of minutes and when he returns he would give the child another marshmallow if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow on the table. However, if the child eats the marshmallow on the table, he wouldn’t get a second one.

The researcher then exits the room for 15 minutes. 

Now, imagine the kids sitting down idly and waiting for the researcher’s return while trying to resist the temptation of eating the marshmallow. 

Some children tried to ignore the marshmallow by pulling their hair and attempting other forms of distractions, others sniffed the marshmallow to satisfy their craving but eventually gave in and ate the marshmallow. Some of the children pounced on the marshmallow as soon as the researcher was out of the room. A few children managed to hold out the entire time. 

The interesting part of this test came years after the children had grown. The researchers tracked each child’s progress and the results were remarkable. 

The children who held out the entire time and hence, received a second marshmallow had more success and performed better in life all through the years when compared to the children who gave in to the temptation.

The marshmallow test concludes that the ability to delay gratification plays a vital role in building a successful life. 

Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes

Tyler W. Watts, Greg J. Duncan, Haonan Quan’s study was not an exact replication. They had the kids waiting for 7 minutes instead of 15 minutes. 

But this study had 10 times as many subjects as the previous one, and it had participants with a more diverse background. Focusing on kids whose mothers did not attend college. 

However, the nuance in their findings is interesting. 

Success at the test at age 4 did predict achievement at age 15, but the correlation was half of what it was in the original research. In addition, this correlation almost vanished when they considered factors such as family background and intelligence. 

This means that if you have two identical kids, the same cognitive abilities, similar home environments, same gender, same parenting, etc. But one can hold out for another marshmallow, but the other one can’t. It really doesn’t matter that much. It won’t determine that kid’s success in life.

But what it does indicate is that the ability to hold out for later gratification out is a consequence of a bigger picture, more difficult to change components of a person, such as intelligence and environment they live in.

I think this is great news, because, our external factors, we are in control over.

More on that later. 

How does willpower work?

Developing your willpower to achieve your goals requires that you understand how you make decisions, so you know when to exercise your willpower.

The human response system is divided into two distinct mechanisms, system 1 and system 2. 

System 1 comes into play when you are in an emergency and your survival depends on your ability to make quick, snappy decisions. Your response switches to an auto-control system called the fight-or-flight system also called the stress response. The body is triggered by hormones to either stand and deal with the threat or run away to safety. The body and brain focus all your energy to help you survive in an emergency – this is system 1. 

The second system is directly opposite to the acute stress response (system 1). The second response system is a slower, more thought-out response initiated by the brain. The body and brain help you to pause and plan a more thorough and calculated decision to deal with a situation, unlike impulsive and immediate response initiated by the stress response system. 

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”

Viktor Frankl

Your ability to make the best decision in the circumstance. Whether it’s resisting a glass of wine or a plate of chocolate glazed buttercream cake depends on your willpower. More specifically, your ability to remember your long-term goal, remember the third variant of willpower we discussed?

It cannot be overstated that making use of system 2 and conversely, exercising greater willpower leads to a better quality of life. 

Again mindfulness comes in. The ability to recognize these moments and make the right decisions. 

Why is willpower important?

In the modern world today, the need for self-control and willpower is more important now than ever. More so because we rarely need to initiate the snappy system 1 and rely heavily on the more measured control of system 2 in our day to day lives. 

Making seemingly unimportant decisions are more prevailing today and whether we realize it or not, leads to a more successful life. 

Getting up from bed to prepare for work will not only help you maintain your job but is the first step in ensuring a productive day. Taking your gym clothes to work. So you don’t have to go home to get them and thus resisting the temptation to slack off on your commitment. 

Resisting the second glass of wine or a second plate of cheesecake or rejecting a cigarette in a bid to be healthier. These are all negotiations we enter daily with ourselves to ensure a better life.

Making decisions to go to the gym, maintain a strict diet, live a frugal life, resist distractions to focus on work may be the key to a better and more fulfilling life.  And ever so often, we tend to choose the easier option. 

Willpower and self-control will help you to make those difficult choices. But it is mindfulness that will help you to remember the reason you made them in the first place. Willpower will also help you to push through your boundaries and achieve your goals.

Exercising greater willpower helps us to achieve our wildest and most outrageous dreams and unarguably leads to a greater quality of life. If so, how do we improve our willpower? 

Improve Your Willpower

First off, what goes through your mind when you think of willpower? 

Many of us imagine that we have to summon a great deal of mental energy to get us to overcome a problem or challenge. While it is necessary to focus your mental energy, willpower involves more than simply making a decision. 

I like to visualize willpower like a muscle that can be exercised and stretched, or a glass that is filled with water. 

Your life involves making difficult choices and sticking to them over time. When you make those hard decisions you use your muscle and it gets tired. Or you drink from your glass. 

The more you have exercised the muscle, the stronger the muscle is, the more it can take. At the same time the less you have to drink from the glass, the more you have left for other adventures. This is how I like to think of it, the stronger my muscle will ultimately strengthen my resolve and my willpower. 

How do you train your willpower?

Many people think that in order to train your willpower you have to push yourself harder. This might actually not be true. Understanding how willpower works and then using this knowledge to hack the system might be the best way. 

Here are some steps you can take: 

Know yourself

The first step to training your willpower is to know yourself. 

Self-awareness helps you to know where you are ” I’m overweight, I need to lose 5 pounds.” Self-awareness also helps you realize why it is important to you “I want to breathe easy when I run”.

More than that, self-awareness gives you insight into your mind. It can help you figure out the thought patterns or habits that can potentially sabotage your efforts. Also what temptations and cravings you may yield to which undermines your discipline.

Self-knowledge is an important tool that helps to create bulletproof plans to resist temptations and bolster willpower.

Research shows that we make decisions on a subconscious level of awareness. Therefore, before making decisions, it’s important to be aware of the decisions we make and the thought process behind those decisions.

Eat the right food

Your diet, unsurprisingly, also plays a huge role here. Decision-making and willpower are related. When you’re about to make a decision system 1 and system 2 starts to argue, the emotional starts fighting the rational. Should you get instant gratification or long term satisfaction? 

If you have a poor diet, studies suggest, this makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you have a healthy diet. It makes sense, right? If you fuel your brain with the good stuff, it is easier to make well-thought-through decisions. 

Healthy food
Choose the right food to fuel your body
Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Here you can work on your willpower, start by making small choices. Skip that breakfast latte, have a black coffee instead. Change up that white baguette with a juicy delicious whole grain alternative instead. Making the changes small will ensure your brain doesn’t notice and you’ll train your willpower. 

Exercise every day

Too many people have great aspirations to work out for hours every day.

But as we have written about in this post it often doesn’t work. Because they over-commit and don’t have the willpower to sustain it.

So, instead, I recommend you to start slow, with the small stuff. Trick your brain into thinking you’re not doing anything at all. Like walking to work, taking the stairs, etc. Making these decisions every day will train your willpower and your willpower will improve. 

A vigilant reader might think that by doing this you change your habit, you actually enjoy these things. Hence, it’s not your willpower that has increased. What you’re doing is changing your mindset. But isn’t that what we want to happen? 

Develop your own reward system

So, our brains are programmed to value and favor instant gratification over long term gratification. Meaning you’d rather do something right now that will make you feel good, right now, than waiting 2 years to get that feeling. Like dieting, it’s more rewarding, for the brain to right now get that sugar rush, than in 2 years having lost all those kilos and running a half marathon. It is as simple as it is distressing. 

But if we can use this, knowing this, we can help ourselves make the right decisions. For example by breaking down goals and giving yourself small rewards when you achieve those goals. 

Here it is important, to be honest. I’m not saying that if you workout you should get to eat chocolate! A goal I often use is that if I’m able to stay away from whatever temptations that day I’ll take the time to make pancakes (that fit my macros/ diet) in the evening. 

Banana and saffron pancakes with mango and passion jam
I love pancakes and I use it as a reward to myself 😋

Stress level 

We all know negative stress impacts the body. Research done by S. Maier, A. Makwana and T. Hare even show that decision making suffers when fight-or-flight is activated. As it usually is when you are stressed. So, if you’re calm and the stress level is low, you’re more likely to make rational choices that support your goals. 

Goal setting

We talk about goal setting a lot, click here to read more about how to set good goals, and there is no surprise that it is important here too. Setting realistic and small goals is essential. Coming out hot with tons of goals and great ambitions might not be the best strategy. This is because realizing you can’t achieve them is really demotivating. 

This is in contrast to setting them, being a dreamer is awesome and super inspiring. That is exactly why we often set too big goals for ourselves. 

Rather, do yourself a favor and set small goals. Small goals will ensure you have a greater chance of reaching them, you reach them more often and you get that rush more often. Hence, your self-esteem will get a boost and so will our willpower and “stay at it” mentality.

In addition, small goals will ensure you get to do the goal-setting exercise more often, which also gives you the inspiration to stay at it.

Train your brain 

This study from Stanford argues that willpower can be trained, but that you shouldn’t overdo it. 

If you go from 0 to 100 and apply a high level of strict self-control on everything you do, you can get burned out. Like with all training you have to allow for your body/ willpower to recover and to recharge in order to actually improve.

One way of training your willpower can be to challenge yourself by making difficult choices. This can be choosing a diet plan and sticking with it through thick and thin, making sure to attend all training sessions or push yourself to complete your repetitions during workouts. 

But, be aware that if you’ve done none of these things before, you should probably start small. again your willpower has to rest and recharge in order to improve. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation is a great way to become more aware of yourself, your thoughts and feelings. Both mindfulness and meditation have become popular practices.

A study released by Brown University suggests a greater level of control associated with people having a high degree of everyday mindfulness. 

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are well-known, here are some: 

  • Helps you increase and improve attention and focus
  • It can help with stress management
  • Your impulse control can be improved
  • Greater self-awareness

So, through mindfulness and/ or meditation you can actually improve many of the above steps to increase your willpower. 

Further, mindfulness and meditation also help us to identify the space between stimulus and response. Between the emotional and rational. It will help you pause and enable you to choose a different path, even if it might be more challenging. 

This way, mindfulness can in fact help us to handle our cravings, desires, stress, and worries in a better way

How to meditate

As we have argued meditation is a simple but effective way to train your mind. If you want to try it out you can follow these 4 simple steps. 

  1. Sit still and upright
  2. Focus your attention on your breath
  3. Feel the movement of air in and out of your body
  4. Notice how your body feels and how your mind wanders
  5. Gently accept that your mind wanders, this is ok and bring the attention back to your breath

There are many great tools you can use to get better at meditation. Headspace is a great app with guided meditation, audible has several guided meditations, or you can follow a guided meditation on YouTube. I like this one by Brenden Burchard a lot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2mY36Ho1Sk

This is a 20-minute meditation, but you don’t have to meditate for that long. 

Personally, I am very impatient, so I had a conversation with my mindfulness coach about this topic.

Meditation
Don’t be too hard on yourself, be proud of the effort and work you put in!
Photo by Richard Feliz on Unsplash

His opinion was that if I can do 5 minutes of meditation that is excellent. If I’m only able to sometimes to 2 minutes that is great too. At least you are doing it, which is a whole lot better than nothing.

Also, often if I’m only able to meditate for 2 minutes I do that more times, so it culminates. Other times 20 minutes is perfect, for me, it’s all about the space I’m in at that moment and playing on the same team as my mind and body. 

How to play along with your willpower? 

So, you’re planning on improving and training your willpower. Maybe you’ve decided to commit to one or more of the steps above? Now how do you actually do it? How do you play along with your willpower? 

Environment

As we have learned in the new Marshmallow test your environment impacts your willpower, or more correctly, your ability to make the right decisions.

Research that is contradictory to the ego-depletion study argues that people in an environment where they are less prone to make bad decisions, actually make less bad decisions. So, set yourself up for success. 

For instance, it would be contradictory when you have a goal of losing weight but have a refrigerator filled with junk food. You’re not setting yourself up for success.

Losing weight means you have to eat healthier, Conserve your willpower by creating an environment that seamlessly allows you to achieve your goals while exercising as little willpower as possible.

Habits

A study by G.Galla and A.Duckworth shows a correlation between good habits and self-control. Good habits are crucial, and that when you have good habits you use less self-control. Simply because you don’t have to use it. 

The decisions you make and the things you do are then grounded in habits, and you actually enjoy them. Meaning that you don’t need to exercise self-control.

For example, working out, if it’s a habit and you like it, you don’t have to convince or force yourself to do it. Hence, you don’t use your willpower.

Therefore, developing good habits can be a great way to make good decisions without tapping into your self-control reserve.

Don’t take on too many challenges at a time

Limit the number of challenges you take on at a time. Again going from 0 to 100 will only exhaust you and leave you burnt out both mentally and physically.

Take quality rest and sleep

When you barely had enough sleep or you had a difficult night, the next day is usually difficult and tiring, right? We feel tired, gloomy, and irritable.

Lacking energy reduces the quality of your decisions and hence, your willpower and ultimately, your self-control.

Quality sleep is usually between 7-9 hours, but this depends greatly from person to person. If possible and necessary, steal 1-2 hours for a quick nap to replenish your energy during the day. 

Practise slow-breathing

Like meditation, slow breathing offers a plethora of benefits in helping you bolster your willpower and exercise self-control.


Research shows that practicing slow breathing makes you more resilient and helps you build your willpower reserve.

Kelly McGonigal in his book The willpower instinct advises; slow down your breath to 4-6 breaths per minute at 10-15 seconds per breath. 

“Slowing down your breath makes you feel calm, in control and capable of handling cravings or challenges”

Kelly McGingal in The willpower instinct

Eat healthy

This is one of the steps to improve your willpower, but it’s also necessary to play along with it.

A healthy, fit body and well-fed body produces a healthy mind and vice versa, junk and unhealthy food affect the mind negatively and hence lead to poor self-control. 

Healthy food
The right and healthy food will fuel you
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Unsplash

Plan in advance

Make a plan in advance if you know or might know you’ll end up in situations that may derail or foil your efforts. 

Scientist call is the “if/then” model, it is simply planning our reactions to events in the future and implementing it when the occasion arises. You are actually 2 to 3 times more likely to succeed if you use this technique. 

For example, if you are dieting and going to a birthday party where you know there will be cake, you plan your response before you go. That way you have planned your response ahead, and don’t have to do it on the spot.

Know your WHY 

As mentioned above, before taking up a task or challenge. Whether it’s in the form of an “I will” or “I won’t”, the fuel that drives and reinforces us to achieve our goals is a strong reason, your WHY.  

WHY
Finding your WHY is will help you make the right decisions
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

The reason behind your decisions to achieve a certain goal has been proven to be one of the greatest factors in replenishing your willpower and driving you to achieve your goal. 

So, before embarking on a challenge that requires a chunk of willpower, make sure you establish a great, motivating reason. 

What should you do now? 

Now you’ve gotten tons of advice and knowledge of willpower and self-control. Maybe you’ve even read some of the articles we have linked to🤓

I recommend you to take a couple of deep breaths. Think and reflect upon all you’ve learned and what was the key takeaways for you. 

Now based on that, or you can scroll up, decide on a couple of steps you want to make that can increase your willpower. Maybe you want to start meditating, get some good habits going or make some changes in your environment such as throwing out all junk food. 

Whatever it is you chose to do, this is the first step!
Remember, you’re training your willpower just by doing that ☺️

Good luck!

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