Willpower: How to Unleash Your Greatest Potential
The intelligent want self-control; children want candy. — Rumi
If there is only one principle for success, it would be doing the things that are right and doing them at the right time. That’s not easy. But we can make it easy.
What we need is a cultivated willpower and the knowledge of how it works.
In pursuit of excellence, motivation is an unreliable luxury that blossoms and withers on its own terms; but a cultivated willpower and discipline is the companion you can rely on in the roughest times.
I’ve been studying and experimenting with the wonderful subject of willpower for 5 years now and this is how I can narrow down my findings:
- By the way of analogy, willpower relies on the fuel in a fuel tank with specific capacity and that fuel can be consumed through various activities.
- You can learn how to refuel the willpower tank, and you can learn what better and longer-lasting fuel to use.
- To have a stronger willpower, you can also increase the capacity of that tank through different practices — aka. willpower workouts.
- To have more willpower and self-control, you can further learn psychological tactics that will help you consume the limited fuel much more efficiently.
- Finally, you can learn to go beyond willpower by adopting strategies that bypass the usage willpower altogether.
I’ll explore all the above in depth. (If you merely want the practical techniques, feel free to jump to section V)
I. Killers of Willpower
Sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency. — Troilus, in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
If you are to have willpower and self-control, you need to have the mental energy for them. Alas, many activities — and not just acts of self-control — draw from the very same source of energy.
Let’s get to know these vampires first.
1. Resisting Temptations
Amanda Palmer, the great musician, also referred to as Amanda Fucking Palmer, credits her success to what she calls “the ultimate Zen training ground”: posing as a living statue.
To make both ends meet, she went into Harvard Square with her face painted white, wearing a wedding dress and she would stand still.
While people would marvel at her stamina, she knew that the real challenge was in her mind.
Standing still isn’t really that difficult. The discipline in being a living statue is much more in the nonreactivity department. I couldn’t move my eyes, so I couldn’t look at interesting me by. I couldn’t engage with people who were trying to engage me. I couldn’t laugh. And I couldn’t scratch my ear if I had an itch. Those were the real challenges.
She later added:
I’d get home barely alive, barely able to feel my body. I would go to the bathtub, and my brain would be completely blank.
Why? She hadn’t been wearing out her muscles by moving them. Her heart hadn’t been beating faster. Then, what was so taxing on her energy for doing nothing?
The answer is: She has been exercising willpower to resist temptations which is one of the most metabolically expensive acts of the human brain that burns loads of the willpower fuel.
2. Daily Struggles
Don Baucom, a veteran marital therapist, would come up with an odd recommendation for couples in dispute: Go home from work early!
He had figured that people were using up all their willpower on the job, and later in home, they would fight over trivial issues, the issues that could be readily prevented if they had slightly more reserves of willpower.
You might presume you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family.
But, you consume the same supply of willpower to deal with wildly different things: frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying coworkers, demanding bosses, all of which lead to an empty fuel tank leaving you vulnerable to temptations and mood swings.
3. Decision Fatigue
When governor of New York, Eliot Spizer hired a hooker that led to his downfall, when governor of South Carolina snuck off to Buenos Aires to visit his girlfriend, and when Bill Clinton indulged in making up with his intern, they were all subject to the occupational hazard that comes with being, as President Bush once described himself, “the decider.”
Decision making, especially when the outcome carries a heavy importance, puts a hefty tax on the reserves of willpower.
The state where you are drained of all the willpower due to making decisions (like when coming back from shopping) is called decision fatigue.
That is why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg always wear the same outfit and all the iconic figures have a specific morning routine: To minimize unimportant decision making.
In addition to the above, during premenstrual part of their cycle (PMS) which is called the luteal phase, the female body starts channeling a high amount of its energy to the ovaries and to the related activities. More energy to these regions means less energy for the rest of the body.
That is why in this phase the body craves food and chocolate and other sweets since they provide an instant jolt of energy.
II. The First Lesson From The Street and The Labs
I have terrible PMS, so I just went a little crazy. — Actress Melanie Griffith, explaining why she had filed a divorce only to immediately withdraw it
If asked about her willpower, Amanda Palmer would suggest she had never had enough of it and by no means has she ever been a strategic planner. But she concedes that her six years as a living statue did strengthen her resolve.
I have a really strong brand of work ethic and I’m a very disciplined one-thing person. If it’s just one project at a time, I can focus on it for hours.
In line with Amanda’s story, the lab experiments recurringly demonstrate two lessons:
- You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
- You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.
Now, equipped with the insight that many of our actions draw from the same stock of willpower we can devise a general purpose strategy:
Focus on one project or habit at a time.
If you are trying to make big changes in your life, your efforts would be foiled if you exhaust your limited willpower reserve through other tasks.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, It would be tremendously harder if you also strive to go on a diet and start learning Spanish.
If you constantly fail at your 5-items new year’s resolution, the problem is not you, it’s your list.
III. Ego Depletion: The Crazy Things That Happen When You Are Low on Willpower
“Thank heaven, I have given up smoking again! God! I feel fit. Homicidal, but fit. A different man. Irritable, moody, depressed, rude, nervy, perhaps; but the lungs are fine.” — Sir A. P. Herbert
Baumeister, the pioneering psychologist on the subject of willpower, coined the phrase ego depletion to describe people’s diminished willpower fuel, hence, their lack of ability to regulate their thought, feelings, and actions.
Perhaps, you had moments where the cravings and desires — whether to devour a cake or to light up the next cigarette — are so gut-wrenching that you cannot resist them.
Crazy things happen when people are ego-depleted:
- Their reactions get exaggerated. A sad movie makes them extra sad. Joyous pictures make them happier, and a disturbing event can make them lose their mind.
- Desires are intensified along with feelings.
- People fail on acts of self-control and easily vent off anger.
- Ego-depleted people cannot engage in complex analytical thinking and become quite risk-averse.
In the case of ego depletion, your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever.
The problem is felt more profoundly by people in a tug-of-war with addictions.
Embarking on an addiction-free journey means being ego-depleted all the time which is accompanied by a host weird and unusually strong sensations. (So, we must be kind to them)
IV. The Fuel of Willpower
The willpower fuel that I kept talking about is glucose, the simple sugar manufactured in the body from all kinds of foods, not just the sweet ones.
The glucose that is provided by digestion, flows through the bloodstream and in addition to acts of willpower and self-control, it is used by muscles, heart, liver, and immune system.
The immune system consumes gobs of glucose when the body is sick, that is why you feel tired and want to sleep during a disease. Your body is mobilizing all the energy to fight that disease.
Now that we know all the hunters of willpower, the question is what should we do about it?
V. Strengthening Willpower — Refueling
Never trust a glucose-deprived brain for anything important.
By now, you know that the more willpower fuel you have in a day the more self-control, analytical power, mood control, etc. you will have.
So a wise thing to do is to begin your day with a full tank. How? With Breakfast.
We don’t want spike and crush recipe for breakfast. The ideal breakfast is the one that gradually releases the glucose into your bloodstream throughout the day.
Sweets. Sweets are the worst in terms of providing willpower fuel because they provide a quick boost followed by an immediate crash which will leave you craving even more sweets.
But, you can use it with tact: If you’re trying to quit smoking for instance and you are craving to light up one, you can have a sip of a coke the boost of which would help you to resist its temptation. Or you could use a sweet drink before a math test or a track meet.
So if you have a test, important project, meeting with your boss, don’t take it without enough glucose.
Gain Steady Willpower Fuel Through Slow-Burn Food
The body converts all sorts of food into glucose but at different rates.
Foods that are converted quickly are said to be high in glycemic index which includes: Starchy carbohydrates such as white bread, potatoes, white rice, and most of the offers on the snack racks. These foods provide a boom-and-bust fuel, leaving short on glucose an self-control.
To maintain steady self-control you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (e.g. peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits. (e.g. apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other good fats.
What if you make the tank full of fuel but the tank itself is of low capacity?
VI. Strengthening Willpower — Enlarging the Tank
The more the body suffers, the more the spirit flowers. — Davic Blaine
The practices in this part, focus on enlarging the fuel tank of willpower.
1. Willpower Workouts
Being thrilled at the possibility of invigorating willpower, Baumeister and Dianne Tice experimented with numerous method to figure out what can lead to a stronger willpower.
In a lucky experiment, they found out that the bothersome advice — “Sit up straight!” — caused the most significant improvement in the willpower of participant in that it required them to override their habit of slouching.
This is the key to enlarging your willpower tank:
Regularly, engage with activities that is burdonsome or requires overriding a simple habit.
Here are some ideas:
- Start using your non-dominant hand for routine tasks. I’m right handed and from three years ago I started brushing my teeth, holding my spoon, opening doors, etc., with my left hand. (This is also an advice from the book: The willpower instinct)
- Another training strategy is to change your speech habits, which also require mental effort to modify. For instance, try braking the habit of peppering your discourse with like and you know.
2. From Strength to More Strength
In laboratory experiments, the main improvements are found in resisting the effects of depletion. Namely, the last acts of self-control when you have exhausted all your willpower reserves.
Have you been to a gym pulling up weights? If so, you probably know that the last reps when your muscles are burning are the ones that are causing the biggest changes.
When I get home from work, totally exhausted, I don’t feel like folding each and single one my clothes. BUT, I know that if I do, it would be like that extra pull up at the gym.
As a rule of thumb, if I don’t feel like doing it, I know that’s what I should do; and in the long run what happens is that you become comfortable being uncomfortable and that’s the ultimate freedom.
I had desires, I killed them, now I’m the master.
That’s not all, you can take one step further and use mental tactics that help you burn less willpower fuel in the first place.
VII. Strengthening Willpower — Optimizing Fuel Consumption
Mental tactics can help you consume the precious willpower fuel more efficiently or to bypass fuel consumption altogether. These tactics enormously help the sustainability of your resolutions by preventing you from going ego-depleted.
I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the least hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed, no living man, or men, shall stop me, only death can prevent me, But death — not even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die! — Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Precommitment is an effective strategy that would prevent you from having to rely on willpower in the first place.
The Essence of the strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.
You anticipate that you will face lucrative temptations to stray you from your path; so, you make it impossible — or somehow make it disgraceful, sinful, or unthinkable — to leave the path.
Precommitment is what Odysseus did to get passed the luring and deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to untie him regardless of how hard pleaded to go to the sirens.
His men precommited differently, by plugging their ears that would make them oblivious to the enchanting songs of the Sirens.
DO you want to prevent yourself from indulging in the social network while you have to focus on your projects? Precommit by blocking your access to them.
Do you want to make sure you go to the gym? Precommit by promising a friend that you will be at the gym.
Keep precommiting and you will be endowed with something valuable that relieves from having to precommit or rely on willpower anymore: A HABIT.
2. Put Your Brain on Autopilot — The Power of Priming Effect
When stuck in the rainforest of Africa, his stomach ruined by various infections, his hopes gloomy, Stanley — Africa’s greatest explorer — would wake up every morning and shave his face with cold water.
Why would someone starving to death insist on shaving? It was a typical manifestation of the man’s orderliness, Stanley’s biographer replies.
In addition, Stanely always tried to keep a neat appearance — with clothes, too — and kept all his belongings organized. The creation of order has been an antidote to the destructive capacities of nature all around him.
Orderly habits can actually enhance self-control in the long run by tiggering automatic mental processes that don’t require much energy.
This link between external order and inner self-discipline has been confirmed recently:
In one experiment, a group of participants answered questions sitting in a nice neat laboratory room, while others sat in the kind of place that inspires parents to shout, “Clean up your room!” The people in the messy room scored lower in self-control on many measures, such as being unwilling to wait a week for a larger sum of money as opposed to taking a smaller sum right away. When offered snacks and drinks, people in the neat lab room chose apples and milk instead of the candy and sugary colas preferred by their peers in the pigsty.
By shaving every day, Stanley could benefit the same subconscious effects of orderliness. He would invoke the spirit of discipline in himself simply through his morning routines.
3. Beyond Self-Control and Discipline
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Navy SEAL commandos have to pass a test called Hell Week which is a continual running, swimming, crawling, an shivering that they must endure on less than five hours’ sleep.
At least 75% of them fail and those who pass the test aren’t necessarily the ones with the most muscle. This is how a Navy SEAL commander points out the common quality of the survivors: “They have the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me?”
This is the key to following this approach:
Focus on lofty thoughts.
When people are asked to reflect either on why they want to do something or on how they want to do something, “Why” questions elevate the mind to higher levels of thinking which drastically enhances their self-control.
So, in the heat of the moment, when you don’t feel like moving even your finger, all you need to do, to bypass the willpower shortage, is to ask yourself WHY?
Assuming you have a strong “why” for what you’re doing, you will be propelled forward by its magic force.
Devising ways that make self-monitoring easy and inescapable is of the most effective strategies you can implement to conserve your willpower.
When people are placed in front of a mirror or told that their actions are being viewed, they consistently change their behavior.
These self-conscious people work harder on their tasks, are more honest in answering questionnaires (their answers jibe more closely to their behavior), they are more consistent in their actions, and their actions are in line with their values.
Self-awareness and keeping track of your behavior is more than just knowing where things are. It means knowing where things are in relation to where they should be.
As one of the most prolific novelists in history, Anthony Trollope believed it unnecessary to write for more than three hours a day.
For each of his novels, he would draw up a working schedule, typically planning for 10,000 words a week, and then keep a diary.
“In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labor, so that the deficiency might be supplied. There has been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”
A blister to my eye. You won’t find anything on psychological literature that would so aptly summarize the impact of self-monitoring.
Those who keep a food diary, loose twice as much weight as those who don’t.
5. Public Commitment
You can take the effects of self-monitoring to its extreme by announcing it publicly.
Public information has more impact than private information. People care more about what other people know about them than about what they know about themselves.
A failure, a slipup, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you’re the only one who knows about it. You can rationalize it or just plain ignore it. But if other people know about it, it’s harder to dismiss.
6. Sacred Discipline
Religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits such as getting drunk, indulging in risky sex, smoking, etc.
They also score much higher in self-control than normal people.
The key to their self-control is discovered by McCullough:
The believers’ self-control come not merely from the fear of God but from the system of values they’ve absorbed, which gives their personal goals an aura of sacredness.
You don’t have to be religious to reap the fruits of self-control; whether you are an agnostic or atheist:
Look for you own set of hollowed values.
That hallowed value can be a devout commitment to help others, a burning desire to improve others’ health or preserve the environment for future generations.
The more self-transcendent your value, the more motivation and fuel it will bring you.
7. The Mighty if-then Rules
I explained that making decisions consumes lots of energy and in case of being low on willpower, you will probably be victim to decision fatigue and ego depletion.
A smart way to prevent this what psychologists all implementation intention.
The idea is to reduce the amount of time and effort you spend controlling your thoughts and directing your behavior.
You make highly specific plans for automatic behavior in certain situations. For instance, you precisely specify what you will do IF you are tempted by a fattening food at a party.
This method takes a form of if-then:
If x happens, I will do y.
So, before you are lured by that delicious chocolate cake at the party, you can prepare yourself with a plan like: If they serve chocolate cakes, I will refuse them all.
Or: If there is a buffet, I will eat only vegetables and lean meat
This approach is surprisingly effective and is included in every willpower book you read (Willpower instinct, The marshmallow test, Willpower by Baumeister, etc.)
The reason it works is that you outsource the mentally-demanding and uncomfortable rejection of the temptations to an automatic process.
8. Never Say Never
The promise not do do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. — Mark Twain
I saved the most cheery technique for the last.
When you are facing a powerful temptation such as giving in to food or to have another cigarette, the most effective way to confront it is to tell yourself I can have this later.
In the mind, it would be a bit like having it now and satisfies your cravings to a great degree.
It takes willpower to turn down a dessert, but according to studies, it’s less stressful on the mind to say Later than Never.
When it comes to food, never say never. When the dessert cart arrives, don’t gaze longingly at forbidden treats. Vow that you will eat all of them sooner or later, but just not tonight.
The benefits of willpower are stark. In the realm of prosperity and personal development, you can sum up a large body of research in the following sentence:
The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.
Even though the role of willpower is vital, you should not utilize it as your main strategy.
Studies about people with the most willpower are thought-provoking.
People with the most self-control spend less time resisting temptations than others. This was puzzling to the researchers until the explanation emerged:
People with the most self-control have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problematic situations.
You will need to cultivate your willpower muscle (enlarging the tank) which in turn gives you tremendous possibilities and will to act.
You will then use this “will” to make habits and then those habits will make your life for you. Take the first step to change, and your life will start to change.
Discipline equals freedom. — Jocko Willink