Willpower is the effort exerted to do something, whether that is taking action or showing restraint. For years, it has been thought to have been a limited resource.
The general thinking was that throughout a day, you use your willpower to make decisions, like having a green smoothie instead of a doughnut or working out in the morning instead of sleeping in. By the end of the day, you have spent most of your willpower and it is easier to give in to temptation.
It’s the perfect excuse for binge watching Netflix after work, rather than working on that book you’ve been meaning to write. I would know.
This idea of running out of willpower is known as ego depletion. What’s interesting about ego depletion is that it is not actually true. Recent studies have shown that willpower doesn’t actually get depleted.
In fact, it’s more like an excuse, which we’ve accepted, as it lets us off the hook when things don’t go according to plan. After all, I wouldn’t have eaten that entire bag of Cheetos if I hadn’t run out of willpower.
You want to workout everyday, but you’re too busy. You want to eat better, but the rest of your day is so taxing that you have nothing left to give to your new goal. It’s all bullshit. The truth is much more black and white. Either you don’t really want what you say you do, which means you need to re-evaluate your reasoning or you’re afraid of pursuing it, which is another problem entirely.
Thomas Edison failed at inventing the light bulb in 1,000 different ways, before he finally got it right. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail, but his vision for a better future in South Africa never wavered. Do you think they ever ran out of willpower? No. They knew what they wanted and they fought for it.
So willpower isn’t something you just run out of because you had a hard day. It is there to be called on. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to leverage your willpower. In fact, there are a number of strategies that can make it easier to stick to your guns. These are four of my favorites.
1. Utilize Activation Energy
In chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy necessary for a reaction to occur. The Arrhenius Equation actually defines how this relationship work. This same idea can actually be applied to how we think of willpower.
If we decrease the amount of energy needed for a reaction to take place, it is more easily achieved. What does this mean? Let’s look at some examples. Say you want to start a habit of working out after work. Wearing your gym clothes to the office, makes it far easier to follow through and hit the gym, than does going home and changing first.
Or say you want to start reading more. Keeping a book at the ready, in your bag or on your bedside table, makes it easier to follow through with your intentions.
This idea works in the opposite direction as well. Increasing activation means you make it harder to do those things that you’re trying to prevent. Keeping sweets or junk food out of the house or unplugging the router for a few hours, can do wonders for your ability to stick to your goals. Try to leverage activation energy when you find yourself seemingly lacking in willpower.
2. Build Self Belief
If ego depletion isn’t a factor, then what does determine your willpower? The answer may be found in self-belief. Recent studies have shown that willpower may simply be dependent on how much of it you believe you have.
When viewed from this perspective, it makes more sense. The more you believe in yourself and your ability to accomplish your goals, the more willpower you have. It’s like a compounding cycle, where willpower begets more willpower.
The key then, is exhibiting your ability to stick to your goals and achieve at a high level.
3. Prioritize Your Tasks
One way to build your self-belief is by actually following through on your goals. The problem is, we often start with easy tasks that we know we can achieve, while we completely ignore the 10,000 pound elephant in the room.
You know the one I’m talking about. We all have that one task that we know is more important than the rest, but it is also the one task that we procrastinate on the most.The key then is to start with the most important task, which is beneficial in a few different ways. First, it prevents all that procrastinating that we are all prone too, but it also helps us build momentum.
If we can get the hardest task out of the way, everything else becomes that much easier.
4. Start Small
Finally, I believe the best way to start building up a habit of willpower, is to not try to go from nothing to everything immediately. You’re not going to be able to do a couch to 5K overnight.
Instead, you just need to build your goals based on intention. Workout in some fashion for just 10 or 15 minutes everyday. Write 500 words everyday. Limit yourself to a single cup of coffee. Whatever it is, the key is to start small and build up.
In the absence of willpower the most complete collection of virtues and talents is wholly worthless.Aleister Crowley
Willpower is one of those intangibles that is essential to all forms of success. While we may not run out of it, it’s still a difficult ability to master. Now we just don’t have any excuses.
Use these steps and build up your willpower, because without it, nothing else matters.