The Why and How of Willpower

26.06.2017 |

Episode #7 of the course How to change any habit by John Fawkes


There’s a big misconception that successful, highly disciplined people have ironclad willpower. Here’s an experiment for you to try right now: pick up a nearby object. Hold it up in the air. Now keep holding it there—forever.

Of course you can’t do it. The very thought is silly, isn’t it? And yet, it’s essentially what most people try to do with willpower—keep exerting it forever, thinking it will never give out.

The most successful people largely avoid relying on willpower, but it has its uses. Today, you’re going to learn how willpower works, what it should be used for, and how to strengthen yours.


How Willpower Works

It’s commonly said that willpower is like a muscle: it gets stronger when you use it. This is half true—willpower is a lot like a muscle, but neither of them work that way.

If willpower really got stronger when you used it, it would never give out. The truth is, both muscles and willpower get weaker when you use them, but then grow stronger when recovering from that use.

That means willpower will eventually give out if you keep drawing on it constantly. It also means that in order for your willpower to get stronger, you have to give it a break—a lot of breaks.

You only have one reserve of willpower, and you use it for everything. Focusing on your work drains your willpower, as does resisting the urge to eat junk food, as does making yourself get out of bed in the morning when you want to sleep in, etc.


What Willpower Is Good for—and What It Isn’t

Since your willpower wears out when you exert it, you can only rely on willpower to keep you disciplined in short bursts. If you continually tax your willpower, it will give out eventually, just as surely as your arm would give out if you tried to hold something overhead forever.

Above all else, you must avoid situations where your willpower will be continually taxed without rest. Take dieting as an example—willpower will allow you to say no to dessert when you eat out. However, if you have ice cream in your fridge, willpower won’t allow you to ignore it forever.

As a corollary, look for situations where a one-time use of willpower can prevent a larger exertion of willpower later. You can fight temptation once at the grocery store or all the time at home.


How to Recharge Your Willpower

You recharge your willpower by indulging yourself: eating comfort food, watching TV, or whatever it is you do to relax. Since you have only one “pool” of willpower, you don’t have to recharge your willpower in a way that’s related to how you expended it.

For instance, you could restore your willpower by smoking cigarettes and use your willpower to work hard on your business. It doesn’t matter that one of those is a health habit and the other is a productivity habit—it’s all willpower.

You need to relax and indulge yourself to restore your willpower, but you can find new ways of doing that. Some ways of restoring willpower are healthy and productive, like exercising; others are bad for you, like smoking.


Exercise: Find Your Willpower Refresher

Come up with an activity that you find relaxing and refreshing—that is, one that can restore your willpower—but is also healthy and productive. This is your new willpower refresher. Engage in this activity whenever you need to “recharge.”


Recommended book

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal


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