Getting things done requires one of two things – motivation or willpower. Finding motivation to do great things is the popular approach cultivated by the media. The unpopular approach is relying on willpower and self-control. What’s the difference, and why is willpower so important?
Motivation implies that you need a certain mental state to complete a task.
Willpower separates moods and feelings from the problem that needs solving.
The implications are huge.
Completing a task brings the feeling that you’d thought was necessary to begin that task in the first place.
You don’t wait until you’re fit to start exercising. You exercise to get fit.
If you’ve been trying to change your life, you can finally get it done with willpower and discipline. Not with motivational Instagram posts.
But why is it so hard to muster up the willpower, and how do we get more of it?[spacer]
Why do we lack will power?
The early human brain only served the purpose of survival. Restraint from fatty foods made no sense when you had to get as fat as possible to survive the winter. Since there was no need for self-control, the human brain lacked the part responsible for it – the prefrontal cortex.
The conditions have changed and the evolution built on top of our brain. By giving us the part of a brain that handles will power, it put two different people inside our heads. (I recommend reading The Chimp Paradox to learn more about this.)
A part of you wants that cake, and the other part wants to look great in skinny jeans. They’re both you, and it’s perfectly normal.
Wouldn’t it be great to shut down your primitive self and only leave the rational brain? Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.
People with damage to their mid-brain can lose the feelings of fear or disgust. Sometimes they end up sexually propositioning family members and stuffing themselves with junk foods. Not exactly great self-control.
Without primitive fears and desires, we can’t set targets and protect ourselves from danger. The goal is finding a way to control, not fight these instincts.[spacer]
How to move from motivation to willpower?
Willpower is the ability to control your impulses. It’s what distinguishes us from animals. People who can better control their emotions, desires and actions are happier and healthier. They make more money and have more satisfying relationships. They manage stress better.
Self-control is a better predictor of success than intelligence.
Willpower is not just about giving things up. Saying no to something is just a small part of what willpower needs. Many times it’s about saying yes to what you need to do, even if a part of you doesnt want to.
Choose your willpower challenge. What is something you’d like to do more of? What habit would you like to give up, because it ruins your health and happiness?
Willpower challenges are different for everyone. But there are universal strategies to fight procrastination and increase self-control.[spacer]
How to boost your willpower?[spacer]
1) Remember what you really want
Right now you might want that extra large chocolate bar or to lay on the couch instead of working on a project. But when you’re fighting temptations, you need to remember what you really want. What you really want is to look great at your wedding, or to get that promotion you’ve been aiming for.
To muster up the willpower, you need to remember your goals when it matters. Otherwise, what is going to stop you from failing?[spacer]
2) Get more willpower with meditation
Neuroscientists have discovered that regular meditation doesn’t just make you better at meditating. It also improves attention, focus, and self-control. Regular meditators develop more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions that support self-control.
Meditation improves the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, just like exercise improves your muscles. Studies found that just 8 weeks of daily meditation improved self-control, and the amount of grey matter responsible for it.
Meditation teaches you not to follow every instinct and feeling that your body produces. Focus on your breath. Sit still and stay put. Ignore the desire to move your body. Recognise your thoughts wandering away and gently bring them back to your breath.
Your brain gets better at whatever you ask it to do regularly. Meditate every day to train up your “willpower muscle”.[spacer]
3) Avoid immediate gratification
When the brain sees an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This makes the brain focus on the thing that promises satisfaction. It builds anticipation for reward but does not help enjoy it.
Most of our willpower failures come from reward triggers overpowering our rational selves. The attractiveness of instant rewards makes you ignore the long term consequences. Just the anticipation of a delicious chocolate bar can overpower the consequences of derailing your diet.
Smartphones and other technology make us crave the instant reward of a new notification. An average person checks their phone around 100 times a day. More often than not the notifications do not deserve our attention, waste our time and stress us out.
Desire is not happiness. It often comes with stress and frustration. You need to learn to separate the real rewards from false rewards that keep us distracted and unhappy.
To make better decisions have a 10-minute cooldown policy before you give in to temptations that can derail you. It will give your prefrontal cortex time to overpower the dopamine and help you make the right decision.[spacer]
4) Deal with stress the right way
Dopamine makes you more nervous and stressed as you expect a reward. The common way of dealing with stress is by giving in to temptation. There is no real reward in that, and we might end up feeling guilty for failing to stay on track.
Feeling guilty for having no willpower leads to more stress and self-criticism. You are even more likely to give in to temptation again and ignore what’s really important.
There are many ways to avoid willpower failures when dealing with stress:
- Sports and exercise
- Reading or music
- Spending time with family and friends
- Creative hobbies
5) Do not make empty promises
For weeks you’ve been promising yourself to start exercising regularly. You finally take the bull by the horns and decide that next Monday will be the first day of a better, fitter you. You immediately feel relief and hope, thinking about the person you will soon become.
This is just another form of instant gratification.
Once we fail to meet our own expectations, self-doubt creeps in and we give up. Making a vague new promise isn’t a strategy to change, but a way to help us feel better.
When planning your next steps, make sure the plans focus on fixing your actions, not feelings. [spacer]
6) Choose the right rewards
Have you ever completed your workout for the day, then gave yourself a permission to eat junk food as a reward, negating the calories burnt?
When you associate your goals with “being good”, it’s tempting to indulge afterwards. To counter this, do not think of completing your tasks as good behaviour that needs to be rewarded. The feeling of meeting the goal should be your reward.
If accomplishing the goal doesn’t feel rewarding, it’s not the right goal.
When you finish a workout, indulge in the positive flow of energy and endorphins instead of junk food.[spacer]
7) Pick your willpower battles
Willpower is a resource that can be depleted. Think of it as your mental muscle.
Just like an overworked muscle, willpower can get exhausted and stop functioning optimally. Forcing yourself through hard choices in the morning makes you more likely to skip gym later in the day.
When exhausted, your prefrontal cortex needs breaks and nourishment. That’s why we are more likely to give in to temptation when we are tired and hungry.
Make note of high willpower moments during your day, and time your important decisions accordingly. My high willpower moment is early in the morning when I am laser-focused on my goals.[spacer]
8) Choose your crowd
Self-control is contagious. So is the lack of it. You are more likely to litter on the street if others have done it before you.
To boost your willpower take inspiration from the people you aspire to. Athletes, leaders, or your friend who got into a great shape.
Building relationships with people who have strong self-control habits will help you establish yours. [spacer]
9) Practice self-awareness
Most importantly, remember that it’s OK to fail. We’re all human.
Once you give up trying to control unwanted emotions, they stop controlling you. Accept the temptations, but remember that you choose whether to act on them.
Our urges are like a wave. They build in intensity, but finally crash and dissolve. Learn to ride the wave. Focus on recognizing the thoughts that go against what’s truly important to you.
Self-control is about understanding yourself, not changing who you are. Being aware of what you feel is the best willpower tool.