not only a matter of character

You want to become a morning person, but you find yourself hitting the snooze button every time your alarm clock goes off? You want to eat more healthy, but find yourself buying yet another pre-cooked meal or bag of chips?

You want to be fitter, but find yourself cancelling yet another yoga class?

What is willpower, and why is it important?

In her book “Maximum Willpower”, Kelly McGonigal, a professor who teaches “The Science of Willpower” class in Stanford, talks about three different aspects of willpower:

  • “I won’t” power – the ability to resist temptations.
  • “I will” power – the ability to do what needs to be done.
  • “I want” power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires.

According to McGonigal, willpower is about harnessing these three powers of I will, I won’t, and I want in order to achieve your goals and stay out of trouble.

Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers on willpower, notes: “Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of self-control failure as a central aspect.

Most of the problems that plague modern individuals have some degree of self-control failure

The research on self-control strongly supports the idea that increasing your willpower positively affects all the areas of your life. People who have more self-control are healthier, their relationships are stronger and more satisfying, they make more money and are more successful at their careers. It’s not surprising that those who have more willpower are also happier.

Why it so difficult to have willpower?

One of the most surprising discoveries regarding willpower is that willpower is like a muscle that gets tired when you use it a lot.

Roy Baumeister ran many experiments in which he asked people to exert their willpower in a controlled laboratory environment (turn down biscuits, control their anger, hold their hands in an ice-cold water, etc.). It turned out that the details of his requests didn’t matter much: people who had to use their willpower experienced a decrease in their ability to control themselves. This manifested in different ways: people who were asked to control their emotions were more likely to spend money on unnecessary items, resisting sweets led to procrastination, and so on. Finally, Baumeister came to a conclusion that willpower gets depleted when you use it.

People who were asked to control their emotions were more likely to spend money on unnecessary items

Moreover, research indicates that there are many other things that can deplete our willpower unconsciously. Sitting through a boring meeting, trying to impress a date, not fitting in at your workplace, are all things that drain your willpower. Every time you have to resist an impulse or make a decision, no matter how trivial, you are using your “willpower muscle” and therefore depleting your willpower reserves.

Our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification

Kathleen Vohns, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, says: “There is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations. Our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification.”

What can you do to cultivate willpower?

Unless you’re moving to an isolated forest monastery, you probably won’t be able to remove all the temptations that deplete your willpower from your life. However, it is possible to train your brain by improving your focus and therefore your willpower. If you exercise your brain on a regular basis to meditate, to be mindful, to pay full attention to your breath or to what you are doing in that moment, and not get distracted, you can actually rewire your brain!

Meditation is a very powerful tool to increase your self-control and focus because meditation increases the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that the brain adapts to exercise the same way muscle does: when you do push-ups, your gain muscle mass, when you meditate, you improve neural connections in the brain between areas responsible for self-control.

Not sure you have enough willpower to start meditating? Join me on one of my meditation challenges to kick-start your meditation practice. Leave me your email and get more info on the challenges.