At a recent dinner with family and friends I asked the question, “What is willpower to you?”. The answers were varied
“A combination of the desire to change something and the motivation to make it happen”
“Being able to overcome an obstacle”
“Facing a hardship and a challenge but having the stamina to work through it”.
“I think there is willpower and there is a won’t-power.”
I was surprised to see the passion that had arisen around the table as we carried on the discussion. In retrospect, this is of course a passionate topic. Willpower is fundamental to each and every one of us. Every single one of us struggles with goals and things we want to achieve and also challenges such as addiction, temptation, distraction, procrastination – these are universal human experiences.
A teacher at Stanford and author of “The Willpower Instinct,” Kelly McGonigal states, “I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves.” So, my family and friends were accurate in their definitions.
If we dig even deeper, willpower and self-control have evolved genetically and are linked to our evolution and survival. They must be, otherwise why would we put ourselves in a situation where we are doing what part of us does not want to do? Because the other part knows that it is good for us. And if they are so important to our survival and better well-being why are we sometimes lacking willpower?
People are often confronted with this question every time they sit down to set goals or make resolutions at the end of a year. In his book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli postulates that New Year’s Resolutions do not work due in large part to constant procrastination. I can attest to that personally as I have wanted to sit down and write this article about willpower for sometime now, however, I kept putting it off until I felt that I was in the right “mood”. Finally I owned up to the fact that the right “mood” was not coming. This piece was not going to write itself so the only recourse was to simply sit down and start writing it. In his book, “Do the Work,” author Steven Pressfield calls this the “resistance,” and the only way to break through the resistance is to simply start and “do the work.”
Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. Bad habits are hard to break–and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.
Dobelli explains that willpower is like a battery that needs to be charged, a concept widely accepted and recognised by many researchers, teachers, coaches and practitioners of willpower. There are many techniques for mastering and improving willpower based on ensuring that the “willpower battery” is sufficiently charged.
Things that can affect this battery are lack of sleep, being distracted and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In a previous article, Infoxication – The Information Pandemic, we highlighted how easy it is for each of us to be distracted, and means of dealing with it in this age of information overload.
Willpower can be trained and strengthened over time however like a muscle it can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it’s an extremely limited mental resource. Scientific and medical research have discovered this muscle to be located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain (otherwise said, your forehead).
A very famous case from over a century ago demonstrates the link between the pre-frontal cortex and willpower. In 1848, a gentleman named Phineas Gage, 25, was working as a foreman of a crew cutting a railroad bed in Cavendish, Vermont. On September 13, as he was using a tamping iron to pack explosive powder into a hole, the powder detonated. The tamping iron—43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds—shot skyward, penetrated Gage’s left cheek, ripped into his brain and exited through his skull, landing several dozen feet away. Essentially destroying a major part of his pre-frontal cortex. Remarkably, Gage survived this horrific ordeal, and by all accounts was conscious and walking within minutes. With the loss of his pre-frontal cortex, he also lost all willpower, all inhibitions and had undergone profound personality changes.
There is an enormous wealth of information available on willpower and guides to success in achieving your goals. We have selected what we thought are some of the best tips and advice and present them in this shortlist below:
Focus more on why you want to change rather than what you want to change. Identifying what you want to change is important, but with a large caveat! Simply stating what you want to change is not a recipe for success. Otherwise all of our new year’s resolutions would work. For example, when I start out by stating “I will not eat donuts” usually ends up with my eating some delicious donuts. However, when I focus on the fact that I want to be slimmer, diabetes runs in my family and I do not want to get it … these are much more powerful motivators than just “I will not eat donuts”. A famous mantra that I have heard amongst some friends from Hollywood related to this concept is: “Skinny feels better than that tastes” – which is a powerful reminder of what I want to avoid, i.e the donut. So in summary for this point – focus on what it is you really want and not just specific modes of behavior. If you focus on what you want, your behavior will follow.
(2) Be aware.
“Know thyself”. Focus on your self-awareness. What are the triggers for why you may engage in behavior you want to minimize or avoid. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you distracted? Once you identify those triggers, then you can put in place a strategy to avoid ending up in a trigger situation.
Surround yourself with likeminded individuals. This is not to say do not listen to folks who don’t think like you or become close minded, but what it does mean is when pursuing a specific goal, your chance of success is greatly increased if you surround yourself with people who have the same or similar goal. Of all the 100’s of tips on succeeding and success this is probably one of the best, if not the best. An interesting article on this topic can be found in the magazine Psychological Science.
Incorporate mindfulness meditation into your life. Studies have shown that this practice can strengthen the pre-frontal cortex. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. The primal region of the brain associated with fear and emotion. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, willpower, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.