People are successful for different reasons. But there is one trait that runs through all high achievers: willpower. The simple definition of willpower is “the ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, or urges” and “strong determination that allows one to do something difficult”.
No matter what your goal is, how hard you train, how detailed your plans, they will all hit roadblocks and obstacles. You’ll have days that feel overwhelming. Your emotions get the better of you. A you’ll frequently question if success is even possible. But if you want to achieve your goals, no matter how hard, audacious, and ambitious they may be, you have to develop the ability to persevere and overcome these difficulties. That’s where willpower comes in.
Decades of research on the science of willpower have created some interesting insights. And understanding them will help you learn how to increase willpower in your daily life. We’re going to explore the fascinating science of willpower. Once you understand the mechanisms behind willpower, you can learn to build your resistance and unlock your limitless goals.
Small instances of exercising willpower can help build perseverance for bigger ones
Walter Mitchel’s famous “Stanford Marshmallow Test” had children choose between eating some marshmallows now, or waiting 15 minutes and having a double-helping. He then tracked those children till they were roughly 32 years old. The children who were able to delay gratification for 15 minutes were more successful in their adult life. They achieved more and were able to reach their self-imposed goals more frequently than the children who ate the marshmallows first. The ability to delay gratification of a simple thing like a marshmallow prepared them for resisting bigger vulnerabilities and distractions later in life.
This can be exercised in your daily life. There’s always a marshmallow, so to speak. Instead of watching that Netflix show, spend thirty minutes cleaning, organizing, exercising, or reading before you allow yourself to sit down and zone out. You can work towards intermittent fasting, take more control of where you’re spending your time and focus, and so much more. Start noticing the marshmallow moments in your life and work towards delaying that instant gratification.
Willpower is a muscle
We all get muscle fatigue sometimes, right? Well, willpower gets fatigued too. And it can be just as debilitating. A study by scientist Roy Baumeister found that willpower acts just like your muscles. It tends to get fatigued when a lot of your tasks require self-control. If your willpower is exhausted, your performance will actually decrease when it comes to those specific tasks, which can lead to trying to exert more control and staying in that cycle.
This study led to two principles, that can help in training your mind to increase willpower:
- To strengthen muscles, you need to exercise. That means you need to exercise your willpower frequently. As we mentioned above, find your marshmallow moments and practice delaying gratification.
- But too much exercise leads to muscle fatigue. You need rest. Every moment of your day can’t be a battle of the internal wills, otherwise you deplete your ability to effectively delay gratification. In other words, sometimes it’s a good idea to put off Netflix, and sometimes you need to let yourself relax.
Make sure you find the balance between exercising and resting your self-control.
To increase willpower, you first have to believe that it is possible to change
A 2010 study by Veronica Job found that your beliefs about willpower can affect how much willpower you display while pursuing your real-life goals. The Stanford University team ran a series of experiments looking at individual beliefs when it comes to willpower. They found that if an individual believes that they a limited amount of willpower that decreases every time they use it, those same individuals displayed lower levels of willpower in their daily lives.
On the other hand, the people who believed willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, had much greater control over their selves. They displayed more willpower and were able to push through distractions and difficulties in order to achieve their goals.
Why willpower is crucial for learning
One thing will always encounter when learning something new is an obstacle. Usually, more than one. For every step forward, it’s common to experience one, two, sometimes five steps back. And that’s where building your willpower comes in. It doesn’t matter if you want to break a habit, build a new habit, learn a new skill, or manage your time more efficiently. There will always be a marshmallow waiting to derail you.
The one thing you need is strong willpower. It’s an essential quality to move forward in life. Learning a new skill or building a new habit requires the ability to know when to push forward, when to take a break, and how to analyze obstacles from different perspectives. Training your willpower will help you understand how to do exactly that.
Habits take anywhere from 28 to 66 days to truly solidify. And not every one of those days will be good. Willpower helps you stick to your new routine—even when you don’t want to. But the stronger your willpower gets, the easier it is to exert. And the same goes with learning. As you get better at sticking to your schedule, minimizing distractions, and doing the hard thing first, the more these behaviors will seep into your daily life. You’ll be able to learn more efficiently, which opens the door to learning more. And soon, you’ll be living the life you both desire and deserve.
Willpower is a complex subject. While researchers have worked hard to identify and measure it, it can still feel elusive in your daily life. But it is the key to unlocking your momentum so you can achieve your goals in life. Pay attention to your marshmallow moments, learn to listen to your body when you need to rest, and challenge yourself daily and you’ll be on your way to building this very important skill.
For more on how to develop willpower and self-discipline, watch this video: