Willpower – is it the key to change?

I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles lately on willpower.  It is incredible the new research on willpower and how we can build our willpower reserves up and how they get worn down.  I am fascinated by the larger impact of this research and the implications that it has on our ability to change.  It is fairly evident that the more willpower one has and that one applies to their change process, the more likely that change will occur.

So how do we build up our willpower muscle and use it most effectively?   This is probably old hat to many of my readers, but here are some of the key take-aways that I’ve learned from this research:

  1. Willpower is like a muscle – in that it can be built up with repetitive training, but also in that it wears out the more you use it during the day.  Every time we resist some temptation – whether that be not eating the donuts that your coworker brought to the meeting, holding off on looking at that latest text ding, or not blowing up at your boss when he is making some really stupid demand for the 10th time in the day – we use up some of our willpower.  Research shows we more easily give into temptations or lose our cool at the end of the day than we do at the beginning.  That is because our willpower muscle is fresh in the morning but gets depleted throughout the day.
  2. Set up some rules or change the environment to decrease temptations in your life – this will provide you with greater willpower over the course of the day.  If you can make it so that you are not having to actively resist a temptation – either because you have a set of rules (i.e., I don’t answer texts at work) or alter the environment (i.e., turn off your text alert on your phone when at work) you will preserve your willpower longer.  Of these two options – changing the environment may be the harder one to initially do, but is the more effective of the two methods.
  3. Willpower requires energy – specifically, glucose.  We tend to have less willpower when our bodies are hungry or glucose deprived.  Counter-intuitively,  quick hit of chocolate can help you stay on your diet!  The brain takes up about 3% of our bodies mass, but uses about 20% of its energy.  Willpower is one of things that uses up a lot of that brain energy.
  4. Willpower is revitalized after rest / meditation –  we can increase our willpower throughout the day by relaxing our brain and letting it rest.  Meditation has been shown to be one of the best ways to revitalize our willpower.  Meditation also is a great training method to help increase our willpower.  Practicing purposeful breathing and not letting outside thoughts enter into our mind is a great training method for our ability to concentrate and keep out outside distractions (i.e., willpower).

There are many more wonderful insights that can be gleamed by this new research.  I encourage you to read two books:

  • Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  Roy Baumeister & John Tierney
  • The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.  Kelly McGonigal

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