The more that I learn about willpower, the more I become convinced that it is the one resources that best determines success. A University of Pennsylvania study on Perseverance and Passion for Long Term Goals, which they referred to as “grit” but which can also be dubbed willpower, was shown to be the single most important indicator of highest education achieved by adults, GPA among Ivy League students, likelihood of succeeding at West Point, and success at the National Spelling Bee. They even went further and showed that it was more important than IQ in all of these areas. Talent without willpower will truly only get you so far.
In The Willpower Instinct Kelly McGonigal agrees, saying that based on her research: “People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.” And that “Americans name lack of willpower as the number-one reason they struggle to meet their goals.”
So how do we get more “willpower”? In the first post of this three-post series, I explained how willpower can best be thought of as a resource or a muscle, and that it needs to be recharged from time to time. It can also be built like a muscle. By challenging our willpower, and pushing ourselves harder and harder in the right ways, we can slowly increase how much we can tax our willpower allowing us to significantly more productive and effective with our time.
Just like building muscle, the effectiveness of different “willpower exercises” will vary based on their intensity, how regularly you do them, and how strong your willpower is already. You’ll also have to vary your recovery time in response to how much heavy mental lifting you’re doing. This requires a lot of self-awareness, and acceptance that this is a slow process. Herculean willpower can’t be built in a day–it’s a commitment over time to yourself that if you want to achieve everything you’ve dreamed of in life, you’ll first have to be able to push yourself through it.
These are the small willpower challenges you can do through the day that will give you little boosts to your willpower over time. None of them are “hard” but they all require you to do something you don’t instinctively do–they require you to consciously choose to act in a certain way that is unnatural, which is exactly what you need willpower for.
1. Become a Lefty (or a Righty)
Depending on what your dominant hand is, you do a large number of things with the exact same hand every time. Opening doors, pouring coffee, drinking, carrying things, pushing buttons, you do them almost exclusively with your dominant hand. Try consciously doing them with your other hand for a day. Every time you go to use your dominant hand, stop yourself and switch it up.
2. Do the Smallest possible Version
You probably have a “big” goal in mind. Maybe you want to write a book, run a marathon, start a company, whatever it is, figure out what the smallest possible action you can take towards that goal is and do it. Saving money? Go to your bank account online and transfer $.01 from your spend account to your savings account. Want to write a book? Write a sentence. Start a company? Do a Keyword search for related ideas and see if its viable. Whatever it is you want to do, do the smallest possible version.
3. Mix Up a Routine
How do you get to the office kitchen? Take a different route. How do you get to work? Drive a different way. Where do you usually go online? Go to similar but different sites. Consciously breaking your routines is an act of willpower, and so long as you focus on small simple ones you can practice using your willpower to break out of long-term habits.
From Walking to Running
Okay, you have your warmups, now here are the bigger willpower challenges. You’ve likely heard some of them before, but there’s a reason for that–they work. And they work really well. If you can adopt all of them into your daily routine, you’ll have a significantly higher willpower reserve to act with.
1. Get Your 8 Hours
I know I harp on sleep a lot, but that’s because it’s so damn important. A lot of people believe they can “get by” on 6 hours of sleep a night, and it’s true. They can get by. But they aren’t excelling. If you want your willpower tank to be full every day you have to be well rested, and that will only happen if you’re meeting your personal quota (usually between 7-9 hours).
The Prefrontal Cortex is the portion of your brain that manages long-term thinking, decision making, social behavior, and personality expression. In studies, people who were subjected to sleep deprivation have shown a loss of these abilities to such an extent as to appear similar to Schizophrenics. And for those of us who believe that we’re “used to” not sleeping enough, UPenn disproved that by showing that there was no adaptation overtime to sleep deprivation, and that the negative effects only continued to accumulate.
Part of the reason for this is that when you’re sleep deprived, your body cannot properly process glucose which leaves your cells and brain starved for energy. Eating and drinking coffee don’t help because caffeine isn’t truly giving you energy, and the food can’t be used to its fullest causing you to eat more and more of it (the reason sleep deprivation leads to obesity). In order to ration its energy, your brain diverts energy from the prefrontal cortex and directs it towards necessary functions (like breathing) and you develop judgement impairment similar to being intoxicated. If you truly want more willpower and productivity, you have to sleep.
I owe this one to Chris from A Year of Productivity whose extensive discussion of the benefits of meditation prompted me to research and eventually start trying it. Even though I’d never meditated before, the first time I tried it I noticed a huge increase in my productivity afterwards and it was as refreshing as taking a nap.
The reason meditation increases your willpower is that meditation where you focus on one thing (usually your breathing) is forcing you to focus on nothing but that one thing for an amount of time. This is exactly what we need willpower for–to focus on one thing and not let distractions get in our way. By meditating we’re quite literally practicing willpower, and the effects are quite impressive. If you want to learn how to meditate easily, Chris wrote a great guide that you can find here and you can also read about what he learned from meditating for 35 hours in one week here.
The reason our willpower fails us is that we come into contact with a stressor that taxes our system more than we’re prepared to handle, and it becomes easier to give in to the temptation than to continue fighting it. When something in our environment stresses us out, it causes our heart to start racing, our body to perspire, and for our mind to start racing. But these second and third effects are both a result of the first one–an increase in heart rate.
To decrease the effects of temptation in our environment then, we need to be able to better respond to the increased heart rate and not let it stress us out. What’s the best way to do this? Exercise. Any exercise, even just 5 minutes of walking, increases our cardiovascular health and helps us respond to stress better. If we can respond to stress better, we have more willpower in the face of temptation, and can stick to the changes we want to make in life.
Dehydration levels of even 1% can negatively impact cognitive performance, and if our brains aren’t operating at full capacity then willpower is one of the first things to get cut. The reason for this is very similar to what happens when we don’t get enough sleep–if we’re dehydrated our brains need to save energy and dedicate it towards the necessary functions, diverting energy from our prefrontal cortex.
Developing strong and reliable willpower isn’t a one-off exercise, it’s something we commit to over time. Just as we can’t expect to run a marathon after one run, we can’t expect to have admirable willpower from just one night of sleeping well. It requires constant dedication to challenging ourselves in small ways to increase it, and always striving to improve ourselves. So to recap, here’s what you can do:
- Swap up which hand you use for things
- Make the smallest possible change
- Mess up a routine
- and Hydrate
There’s a second part of willpower development though: how do you manage what you have? There are efficient ways to use willpower and inefficient ones, and you want to be able to get the most possible out of what you have. You can learn how in part 3 of this willpower series!