Willpower, aka – determination, drive, resolve, self-control, self-discipline, stickwithitness, or “Step away from the cookies!,” is characterized by the following points –
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
You may think that willpower is an innate trait that you’re either born with or without, but actually it’s a complex mind-body response that can be comprised by a variety of environmental factors. Stress, sleep deprivation, and nutrition (HEY LOOK! Nutrition!) are the most common environmental factors that either hinder or strengthen your willpower.
Let’s call “willpower” a cousin to “stress.” Both are not just psychological experiences, but instead mind-body responses to your environment. Stress responses are reactions to external threats. (ie – your reaction to a fire alarm) In contrast, willpower responses are reactions to an internal conflict. (ie – you REALLY want that cupcake, but know you shouldn’t or on the flip side, you know you you SHOULD go to the gym, but would rather do nothing.)
Willpower responses put your body into a state of calm versus the adrenaline rush response of stress. The “pause-and-plan response” of willpower helps you to resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. This response also sends extra energy to the brain’s prefontal cortex — the part of your brain keeping track of your goals and helps you override cravings. The ultimate result? Motivation to do what matters most to you.
However, like oil and water, stress and willpower simply can not exist together. Chronic stress will cause our willpower to decrease exponentially. The fight or flight stress response that floods the body with energy steals this energy from other areas of the brain — mainly the part of our brain that helps us make wise decisions. Learning how to better handle your stress – even if it’s learning to take a few extra deep breaths when feeling overwhelmed – is one of the best ways to increase your personal willpower.
So, are you sleeping? Are you getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night? Sleep deprivation is a chronic stress that impairs how your body and your brain uses energy. The prefontal cortex – that epicenter of decision making – is the hardest hit when we are sleep deprived. Studies show that the effects of sleep deprivation are equivalent to being a little drunk! (We know we don’t make great decisions when we’re drunk…now do we?) The good news here is that the best step towards better willpower is just catching a better night of sleep!
So, after all this mumbo jumbo, lets get to why you’re really here. Nutrition. Nutrition influences availability of energy for the brain. Not only the amount of energy, but the type of energy. Simply put a plant-based, less-processed diet makes better energy more available for the brain and what have we learned about energy in the brain and willpower? Ohhh, that’s right! The prefontal context NEEDS it to help you make good decisions!
However, we all know that energy dapleats rather quickly over the course of the day. People who use their “willpower muscle” will run out of willpower quicker than those who don’t. This muscle model of willpower mimics the same way any of our muscles will get tired and start to fail. This doesn’t mean we’re doomed to fail or run out of willpower by midday. Just like any muscle we strengthen through exercise, willpower gets stronger the more we use it. What starts out as difficult becomes easier overtime. New behaviors will soon become habits, temptations becomes less overwhelming, and willpower challenges become less daunting.
So how do we exercise our willpower muscles?
Meditation helps to improve willpower skills, and helps to sharpen our attention, focus, and overall stress management. People who regularly meditate show more “gray matter” in the prefrontal cortex than those non- meditators. After a mere 8 weeks the brain changes and the prefrontal cortex gets “stronger.” (Pop quiz: What does the prefrontal contex do again?)
Physical exercise also leads to similar changes in the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex. (There it is again!) However it’s not clear why. Regular exercise – both intense cardiovascular trainings (You know, like CrossFit.) and mindful exercise like yoga — also makes the body and brain more resilient to stress, which is a great boost to willpower.
So, basically if you skipped all of the mumbo jumbo and ended up down here at the end without reading everything — Willpower works like a big cycle. The more willpower you use, the more willpower you will have. Sleeping well and eating better will add to your willpower longevity and therefore help you reach your goals.
So…stick with it!
Read more about willpower and sticking with it over here at – James Clear – How to stick good habits even when your willpower is gone & 19 Reasons why willpower fails you