Understanding and Strengthening Willpower

Willpower is an invisible force that massively affects our quality of life. Whether it’s getting/staying healthy, building meaningful relationships, or executing on our dreams to make them a reality… all require immense amounts of willpower.

But how much about willpower do we really know? How do we get more of it? How do we keep ourselves from losing it?

These are the questions I sought out to answer with this post, and do it in less than a 5 minute read.

What Is Willpower?

In order to build an understanding of willpower, we first need to understand “will”. There are many definitions for the word, but here are the two I like best:

Will

  • the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
  • control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.

Now that we have a baseline understanding of will, what does it mean to have willpower? My understanding combines the two definitions above.

Willpower

  • control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Got It, Now What?

Research has shown that willpower is very much like a muscle. Understanding this brings us one step closer to answering the questions of how to get more, and how to stop ourselves from losing willpower.

So, what do we know about muscles?

  • Muscles get stronger when exercised
  • Muscles can be overworked, leaving them weak until they can recover

Wait.. Willpower Can Be Overworked?

Yes, no matter how much you have.

In one study, participants were asked to not think of a white bear (thought suppression exercise). Try it. Don’t think of it’s fluffy fur, adorable face, or connection with Coca Cola’s genius marketing. It’s hard isn’t it? It takes willpower to control our mind.

Here is the study in a nutshell:

  • Two participant groups, one control group (no thought suppression exercise) and one group instructed to not think of a white bear
  • After the task, both groups went beer tasting
  • The groups were asked to limit their alcohol intake because a driving test would follow
  • The participants who underwent the thought suppression exercise drank significantly more beer than the control group

You may be skeptical, and I wouldn’t blame you. I chose this particular study because I like beer. If you want another example, you can reference this study as well.

There is a bunch of research on the subject, and the data points to willpower being a limited resource. Knowing this, it is in our best interest to be selective in the activities and distractions we’re willing to allow into our lives to make the best use of our limited willpower.

So How Do We Increase Our Willpower?

“I haven’t felt this good since 1962”

There isn’t a magic pill to radically increase willpower overnight, but here are some steps we can take to consistently improve our quantity and quality of willpower:

Manage Stress

This one is huge, and at the same time the most difficult and nuanced to implement. I wont go into stress management strategies here as there is already a ton of information on the subject on the internet. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites:

“The biology of stress and the biology of willpower are simply incompatible. So any time we’re under chronic stress it’s harder to find our willpower.”

Get Enough Sleep

I used to pride myself on my ability to sleep 4 hours a night and function fine the next day. Now, as I’m a few years older and wiser, I’ve realized that sleep is absolutely essential in maximizing my energy levels and willpower. Once again citing McGonigal:

“Sleep deprivation (even just getting less than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. The prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit and it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response.”

Meditate

Daily meditation for as little as 8 weeks has been shown to improve our attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Daily meditation has also been shown to increase gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain used to support self-control.

I wrote a blog post on getting started with meditation, you can find it here.

Physical Exercise and Proper Nutrition

This one is often overlooked and undervalued, but is critically important. Regular exercise and proper nutrition increase our energy levels, which in turn increases the “reserve” of willpower we have to pull from on any given day.


I’ve been using my Way of Life app to track my daily progress on all four of these areas, and have absolutely noticed improvements in my energy levels, willpower, focus, and creativity.


P.S. Thanks for reading, I really appreciate it. If you liked this post, please recommend it (by clicking the ❤ button below) or share it on social so others can take a look.