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Scott Byars | July 17, 2016

Increasing Willpower Increases Well-Being

When I started this blog I considered using the tag line, “I read all the self help books out there so you don’t have to.”  And in that vein… let’s talk about willpower. I have read three books on willpower that I could recommend to anyone interested in the topic. They are: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister and Tierney, The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. All great books to read, but if reading three books on willpower sounds about as enjoyable as being waterboarded. Don’t worry, you don’t have to. Here is the short version.

Willpower has been getting quite a bit of scientific attention of late, and rightly so because willpower is critical for achieving success in life no matter how we define success. Even though this critical element for enhancing well-being is finally receiving it’s just due, I fear most people still don’t understand where willpower comes from and how to get more of it. The common misconception is that you either have it or you don’t. That some lucky people are just born with willpower and the rest of us are destined to be slaves to nachos supreme. But believe it or not – and despite the fact that all my encounters with cookies n’ cream ice cream directly contradict this – we are all born with willpower.   

Willpower evolved in humans as a way for us to overcome our short term desires in order to increase our long term well-being. Willpower is necessary to mediate the conflicts that arise between our loincloth clad primitive brain that demands satisfaction now and our more smartly dressed modern gray matter that can conceive of and plan for a future. In contemporary life it’s second nature to incessantly plan and scheme about the future. But this hasn’t always been the case. Although it may bewilder us today, for a majority of our evolutionary history… tomorrow didn’t matter. In fact, the mere ability to conceive of tomorrow is a relatively new trick for our brains. It emerged as we evolved past being driven by instinct alone. Our evolution has allowed more choices and possible futures to become available to us. Willpower is an effective way for us to cope with those choices and to ensure those futures are bright.

In short, back on the savanna the present moment was the primary concern – and besides, there was no triple chocolate cake or Crown Royal so we really didn’t need much willpower. Now however, when choices and possibilities abound willpower is in high demand and seemingly short supply.  So, what is this magic sauce and how do we get more of it? Without further ado…here are five tips to get more willpower.     

chocolate cake on white plate

Eat healthy foods and sleep more.

Treat willpower like a renewable resource. The amount of willpower we have at any moment is related to the amount of sugar in our bloodstream (specifically glucose, a type of sugar our brain uses.) We keep adequate blood sugar levels by eating and resting. When we fail to do those two things we have low blood sugar and we have less willpower. Because as our body senses our blood sugar levels decreasing it tries to conserve energy and one of the first things that gets kicked to the curb is our power hungry, glucose gobbling modern brains which control our willpower. Without adequate food and rest our blood sugar levels drop more quickly.  

Ok, so what does all this mean? Our best bet to maintain consistent blood sugar levels and in turn consistent willpower is to eat small frequent meals consisting of vegetables, protein, good fats, and fruit. Try to limit carbohydrates as they tend to spike and then crash your blood sugar. And last but not least, get plenty of rest, 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.

Exercise your willpower muscle      

Willpower is like a muscle. The more you use, the stronger it gets. To strengthen your willpower start exercising your willpower in small ways everyday. You can do this by committing to do something on a daily basis that you don’t normally do. You could take a short walk to get some exercise. Or you could commit to not do something that you normally do. You could try not to surreptitiously surf the net on your phone while your wife is telling you about her day. Both take willpower and both make you stronger. Small willpower tests like these will help you gain trust in your ability to use your willpower as your brain strengthens the neural pathways necessary to implement willpower. With enough training you will be a willpower Hercules with enough strength to help two rowdy kids to take a bath, brush their teeth and go to bed without losing your shit. Yes, it can be done. I looked up from surfing the net and saw my wife do it.   

Focus on what is important     

Once you prove to yourself that you actually possess willpower you’ll want to start using your new superpower for things that really matter. Focusing on what is important is the way that you stay committed to using your willpower and dramatically increase your well-being. If you’ve been reading my previous articles, you’ll know that the things that matter most to us are our needs. When we focus on our needs and use effective strategies to meet those needs we increase our well-being. Start your day by reviewing what matters to you and imagine the well-being you will achieve by implementing willpower to meet those needs. Focusing on the tangible benefits of getting your needs met transforms your actions from something you should be doing into something you want to be doing.    

Plan for adversity

Now that you are focused on what is important it’s time to start planning for the things that could derail this train to happyville. Our chances of success are greatly enhanced if we anticipate the things that could cause us to fail. To thwart failure we need a plan. For example if we are trying to meet our social / connection needs by having more productive communication with our spouse it behooves us to know when productive communication will be a challenge. If being under time pressure makes us snap at our spouse, we need a plan for that. We could pre arrange a “crutch” word or phrase such as  – “I’m late, sorry can’t talk now but I’ll be available later.” Or horror of horrors we could even get up earlier…nah,on second thought, stick with the crutch phrase. (see #1 above)

Smiley Face_ScottByars

Be kind to yourself

Lastly, be kind to yourself. Paradoxically, we are more likely to succeed at sustaining willpower if we know that there will be times when we won’t be able to. Self-empathy is critical at these times. A common misunderstanding is the belief that we should self-flagellate to stay on track,  however in reality it’s empathy that keeps us on track. Empathy allows us to be resilient and adaptable in the face of adversity.

As McGonigal explains: If you are hard on yourself you’ll feel bad and in order to feel better you’re more likely to choose an ineffective strategy to ease your pain. Ironically, we usually double down on the very thing that we’re feeling bad about ourselves for in the first place. Sounds crazy, right? Yep, that’s where guilt and shame end up.

Things that are worth having in our lives usually don’t come easily. In order to increase our well-being we need as much willpower as we can get. We can begin by using our current willpower to our advantage. But it’s also empowering to realize that we can increase the amount of willpower we possess. The journey to well-being begins by using and building willpower to implement effective strategies to meet our needs. Applying these five tips will greatly increase your willpower and your odds of riding that train to happyville.