Depending on which dictionary you consult, willpower means “energetic determination,” “firmness of will,” “the ability to control oneself and determine one’s actions” or “the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes or plans.” It all sounds good to me. Regardless of which definition we’re working with, willpower is something I’d like more of, and I’m certainly not alone. (Why else would motivational speakers exist?) But is willpower really something we can work on? Or are the strong-willed simply blessed—and the weak-willed doomed to their fate?
A lot of scientists support the blessed & doomed theory. Genetics and early-childhood training are key to determining how disciplined and determined you’ll be as an adult, psychologists and neuroscientists say. But that’s not to say you absolutely can’t get better at these traits. “Willpower is like a muscle,” Jason Gots of Big Think writes. “It can be developed through exercise, and exhausted through overwork.”
… practicing self-control can increase overall willpower throughout adulthood. In one experiment, scientists discovered that brushing your teeth with the wrong hand for two weeks leads to increased stick-to-it-iveness* in other areas. Likewise goal-setting at work, or following a regular exercise routine.
In other words, increasing your willpower … just takes a little willpower? Sounds a litlte Catch-22 to me. But they do say habit becomes character. And repetition becomes habit (do they say that? They should, anyway). I was told as a teenager to kiss my hand and touch the roof of my car when going through a yellow light or else a year of bad sex loomed; to this day, I still do it, but now it’s almost purely reflexive (friends ask, “why are you doing that?” and my first response is usually ‘doing what?’—the action doesn’t consciously register). Folk wisdom holds that we can train ourselves to instinctively wash our faces before bed, clean the kitchen right after dinner, answer emails as they come in or reach for the hand-weights while watching television if we just force ourselves to do it at first, and this seems to jive with the willpower as muscle metaphor. A little concentrated willpower up front, and the good habits will follow.
‘Willpower depletion,’ on the other hand, “has yet to be studied in depth,” Gots writes. But “what is well understood is that marching through effortful tasks one after another, for hours at a time, is a bad idea.”
To avoid burning out your daily allotment of willpower too fast, Gots suggests:
- Interspersing tasks that require the most effort and self-control with ones that require less.
- Taking short breaks after willpower-intensive activities.
- If you have something important to do, be careful not to engage in any activity that requires a lot of discipline and willpower right beforehand.
Of course, while some universal rules of willpower may apply, everyone’s drive works a little differently. Gots mentions that an ‘energizing’ job before a big meeting might not be a good idea—but I’ve known people who genuinely do feel refreshed by running or exercising before work. How do you keep your willpower reserves up throughout the day?
Photo: Reynolds Performance