By Jimmy Warden
We all have certain goals that we want to accomplish. We’re often feeling pretty motivated at the onstart of completing them. We build a little bit of momentum. But then, as that momentum wanes and our motivation depletes, we have the tendency to fall back into old habits and decisions. During these moments, we lack willpower. During these moments, we must exercise our willpower.
What is willpower?
Willpower is the ability to override impulse and temptation with good, moral, conscious thought. It is exercised when we are trying to eat healthy, and we say no to eating a cookie. We’re trying to not drink alcohol during the week, so we say no to accepting a glass of wine or a beer when we want to accept someone’s offer for one. These decisions can also be referred to as mental override because we have an internal desire to say yes to the aforementioned temptations, but we consciously say no to them, so we are overriding that desire.
Willpower can be mental and it can also be physical. It most commonly appears in our minds because it often has to do with decision-making, rather than physical output. In regards to physical output, a mental decision must be made ahead of time to move forward with that physical output. For example, we could make the decision to try to lift more weight at the gym or take in all of the groceries after a big shopping haul. Exerting ourselves in this manner would be showing some serious physical and mental willpower. Not only the physical labor, but also the mental power in believing in ourselves, and making the decision to challenge ourselves physically. And most importantly, following through on that decision.
Is willpower reliable?
The short answer, yes and no. However, there are a few layers to why the answer is both yes and no.
The first layer is, willpower starts off strong. When we create new habits or try new activities, there is a feeling of novelty behind them because of their newness. This is why we usually do well in the first few days of New Year’s resolutions or other personal goals we set. We are excited and motivated.
However, this novelty wears off. This is the second layer. Depending on the individual and the context of the activity, this novelty tapers down at different rates, but it lowers nonetheless, no matter who you are. When this occurs, our excitement dims and our motivation depletes. This is a big reason why gyms are so full during the first week of January, but begin to empty back to their normal attendance rates shortly thereafter.
At the layer of neuroscience, it boils down to neurochemicals. Specifically, dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. In a nutshell, motivation is the feeling we get when dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline are released to the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine is released when we are “on track” to find what we are seeking, so we feel a surge of energy. Norepinephrine and adrenaline also contribute to the surge by dialing in our focused attention to whatever our current goal is, and releasing energy to help us pursue that goal.
When the novelty begins to wear off, so does the neurochemical release. We release less dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. This is what makes it challenging to get off the couch during the second week of our New Year’s resolution to go to the gym consistently. The newness from week one has lowered, and coupled with a sore body, motivation and willpower minimize from their initial levels. This only continues to perpetuate each time we say no to following through on our goals.
How can we exercise our willpower?
In order to get into the practice of exercising willpower, we must do things each day that are challenging. It is crucial that these challenges are not too challenging, because when they are, failure is inevitable, and that will not contribute to building our willpower. Instead, we need to dial in the right amount of challenge in order to be in a peak performance state, often referred to as flow state. If we can reach a flow state, willpower is no longer something that requires a lot of mental or physical energy because we’ll be so absorbed in what we’re doing that we’ll feel superhuman.
Flow state does not occur automatically because it requires some tampering when dialing in challenges. Not only that, but it also requires that we deal with frustration that is rooted in the challenges we’re facing. Oddly enough, it is often this frustration that can put us into the flow state because we are challenge seekers by nature and we want to complete said challenges. When we find ourselves just out of our reach, in terms of talent, but we are also having success, we have found flow state. This process will be clunky because it will take some time to recognize where our current abilities are, which influences what challenges we can or cannot take on. This is why it’s important to constantly take stock of our progress. This data can help us determine our current level of ability, and help us raise the bar slightly with each approach.
It is also important to think about where we want to exercise willpower in our lives. Is it with nutrition? Is it with a mindfulness practice? Is it with our exercise regiment? Whatever it is, we must get specific.
For example, if we wanted to exercise more willpower with our nutrition, we should start with something simple based on our current habits. Let’s say we have a habit of eating dinner right before we go to bed, and it is affecting our ability to get a good night’s sleep. A way we can start to exercise our willpower is by eating dinner at a slightly earlier time. Eating at a slightly earlier time will be challenging at first, but practicing it over time will make execution easier. At first, it will require conscious thoughts about how eating earlier will help us get better sleep. It will also require mental override to not reach for more food right before bed, but over time, the consistent repetition of meal timing will eventually prime our brains and bodies that the time we’ve set to eat is the time we should eat. As we follow through, day after day, we can push the meal timing to be even earlier if our ultimate goal is to eat our last meal a few hours before bed. This can induce a flow state before, during, and after our meal because of the incremental changes that we’ve placed on our meal timing over a period of several weeks or months.
Putting it all together
Knowing that willpower is mental and physical, depletes over time, but can be altered with incremental improvement, we must calculate how we are going to exercise it. It is also important to understand that it will be a process because of those reasons. We are not going to be able to go from 0 to 100 overnight, and if we do, chances are it’s not sustainable. We must constantly reflect on our progress, when our willpower has failed us, when we need to exercise more mental override, and when we need to dial the challenge up or down. Therefore, we must be patient with ourselves, knowing that our willpower can both help us or hinder us. It’s just a matter of being aware of how it’s serving us day to day, and when we can do that, we can make better decisions, and live a life that is more fulfilling.