The Science of Willpower: How to Train Your Productivity Muscle.
If you had a chance to choose a superpower, which one would you pick?
I don’t know about you, but I would most certainly ask for super strong willpower. The kind that can help me achieve any goal and that will never fail — an uncompromising mental reservoir of strength.
Willpower makes all the difference in the world. It is what stands behind most success stories. It is what helps us forge new habits and what keeps us on a chosen course no matter how difficult the road gets. It is what helps us resist distraction and lead a productive lifestyle.
Willpower is a superpower, at least to some degree.
Willpower Unmasked: What Is It? How Does It Work? Why Does It Matter?
Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere. As the American Psychology Association has so nicely put it:
“Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”
Willpower is believed to be one of the key determinants of both personal and professional success. Commonly referred to as “self-discipline,” willpower is what helps us create lasting positive changes in our lives. It is the inner strength helping us move toward our goals despite challenges that inevitably happen on the way.
The nature of willpower is complex. For this and other reasons, it has become a subject of research for many psychologists and scientists.
The 3 Most Fascinating Studies on Willpower
When it comes to the science of willpower, there are three big names you should be familiar with. Each of them studied the topic from their own perspective, but the findings of all combined is what has laid the foundation of our understanding of willpower today.
Discussing the scientific aspect of willpower is impossible without mentioning Walter Mischel. Walter Mischel is most famous for his Stanford Marshmallow Test, which remains one of the most valuable studies on delayed gratification. The test is simple but genius.
Children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward right away or having a double-portion after waiting for around 15 minutes. Kids who managed to delay gratification were believed to have stronger willpower (an obvious conclusion). The study, however, did not stop there. The young participants of the Marshmallow Test were actually subject to long-term evaluation. Over the course of years, it turned out that those who were able to delay gratification as kids had better life outcomes as adults. Life success was measured in terms of education, performance at work, health, and other metrics.
Roy Baumeister is another important figure on the willpower-science scene. In collaboration with other scientists, Dr. Baumeister discovered that our will, just like a muscle, can be fatigued if we spend too much time on activities that require self-control. According to Baumeister, the strength of our willpower depends on the level of energy available in our brain at a given moment. To support his point of view, Baumeister ran an experiment that involved hard-to-resist foods. Participants had to withstand the temptation of eating chocolate and complete a series of mental tasks afterward. Those who managed to resist food temptation appeared to be more fatigued and performed worse in mental tasks.
Back in 2010, a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Veronika Job and her colleagues suggested that our own beliefs about willpower might play a key role. A series of experiments proved that when we believe that our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. Meanwhile, those who believe that willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, demonstrate greater self-control and are not likely to lose will under depleted circumstances.
Willpower Is a Muscle You Can Train
Although there is some controversy around willpower, a growing body of research suggests that willpower should be considered a muscle. This leads us to the following thoughts:
- To strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise.
- When you overwork, muscles get tired and will need time to recover.
Putting this into the context of self-discipline means training our willpower regularly but allowing ourselves to be relaxed from time-to-time, so the “willpower muscle” has a chance to restore its energy levels.
How to Train Your Self-Control Muscle (And Improve Willpower)
Contrary to a popular belief, boosting willpower is not about pushing harder. It is rather about understanding the nature of willpower and using this understanding to hack the willpower system.
Below is the list of actionable steps you can take:
- Exercise daily. Thousands of people promise themselves they will exercise every day. With good intentions, they pay for gym memberships, stay committed for a few weeks, and then quit. In nearly all cases, the lack of self-discipline is to blame. Commitment to sport requires willpower, which makes physical activity a great way of training your willpower muscle. The trick, however, is to start small and build up. If your willpower is limited, you have to fool your brain into thinking nothing is really happening. The smaller the better so that your brain (willpower) doesn’t ring alarm bells. If you can’t take the stairs for all 5 flights, take them for 1 then switch to the elevator. Over time, add more as your willpower improves.
- Feed your brain the right food. Willpower and decision-making are closely related. Each time you appeal to willpower, you start a fight between the rational and emotional parts of your brain. You have to decide what to choose: instant gratification or delayed, but greater, benefit later. Studies suggest that poor diet makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you were well fed. To this end, the same advice to start small goes a long way. Trade out one cup of soda for tea or water. Replace your cinnamon-sugar bagel for a whole grain option. Keep changes small so that your brain doesn’t realize a change has been made. In no time, you can build up your willpower skills.
- Develop your own reward system. The human brain is wired to favor instant gratification over a delayed reward (no matter how much bigger it is). Knowing this fact about your brain can help you resist temptation. If you break your big goal into a few smaller goals and assign a valuable reward for each small goal achieved, your willpower will be activated.
- Train your willpower, but don’t overdo it. Studies suggest that training our willpower works wonders, but everything is good in moderation. If you become a self-control maniac and remain so for too long, you’ll burn out. Remember that your willpower will need to recharge.
- Work on your stress levels. According to studies on the connection between stress and willpower, goal-oriented behavior suffers when our fight-or-flight signaling is on. When we are calm, we are more likely to listen to the rational part of our brain — a good friend of willpower — instead of acting emotionally and falling for temptations.
- Set realistic goals. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, unless you’re regularly going all out. When you set unrealistic goals, you are losing the game before you even start to play. The process feels inspiring in the beginning, but as soon as you realize you are not going to make it, your self-esteem decreases and so does your willpower. Set goals that are big enough to be motivating but still doable. Alternatively, break your goals down into sub-tasks and work on one smaller goal at a time. The feeling of making progress will boost your self-esteem and empower your willpower (sounds crazy, huh?)
Looking to beef-up your self-control muscles?
To master your willpower, keep these facts in mind.
Willpower gets stronger with regular use. You can train your willpower with small things like making your bed every morning or choosing a fruit over a cookie at least twice a week. Start small and scale it up as your self-control skills grow.
Willpower is a muscle you can train. Hear this: You are not forever bound to your bad habits. Of course, some poor habits might be hard to break, but as long as you keep your goal in mind and work on strengthening your willpower, nothing is impossible. You can become a better version of yourself; the power to make this happen is always within you.
Willpower is one of the best tools you can use to resist distraction and boost productivity. Willpower is a good tool, but not the only one. If you would like to learn more about fighting distraction and being productive in all aspects of your life, make sure to join the #DistractionDetox Challenge. Not only will you join a squad of like-minded people, but you will also receive lots of valuable insights on the topic.
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