The Holistic Health and Conditioning Blog

  • Nigel Stainton

Willpower - The Hidden Secret to Success and Happiness

If you could go back in time and ask your metaphorical fairy godmothers for the qualities and virtues that would most help in adult life – what would you ask for? While most people might ask for such classics as intelligence, good looks and great health. It would seem from modern research that all you need is to ask for an abundance of willpower. It turns out this ability for willpower and so self-discipline and self-control is the critical faculty for a truly successful life. For . . . “When it comes to success, self-control is more important than intelligence. It's more important than the education you got or how ambitious you are. Research shows that your willpower affects your income, how successful your career is and how healthy you are – both physically and mentally.” – Manuel Kraus (psychologist)

So what exactly is willpower?

Hopefully much of your day-to-day life feels like a gentle downhill ride that goes from one action to another without too much effort – what we might call a flow state. Yet we all also come across certain activities or tasks in life that just require more effort. When it literally feels as if we’re trying to go uphill or driving with the hand brake on. What we’re actually feeling is the manifestation of our own resistance to doing these tasks and therefore these activities often become the ones that we habitually don’t like doing. These are the life actions we’re we require willpower to get them done. From this perspective willpower is rather like horse power. We only really need it to kick in when we start to feel life is going uphill.

A useful way to make sense of this is to see the underlying issue as a relationship to time. We want to get the issues done – such as sort out finances, getting fit or make that difficult phone call – we just don’t want to do it now. Usually we want the benefits of having done something later, such as having been on regular early morning runs around the park, but we just don’t want the reality of having to get out of bed to start doing it now. Not surprisingly the latin word procrastination literally means – to put off until tomorrow!

The Neuroscience of Willpower

Modern science tells us that we function from two quite different areas or parts of the brain when it comes to decision making. Put simply we have an impulsive self that functions from what’s called the mid-brain (it’s in the middle) and a considered self that functions from the frontal cortex (it’s at the front). Even with just this basic information it’s not hard to see that it’s the impulsive self that wants us to stay in bed now, and the considered self that wants us to get up now so we can look good on the beach in the summer later, or just feel healthy later. One could simply call these two minds – the now-self and the later-self.

The problem comes when what we feel we want to do now (stay in bed) is at odds with what we want later (having been running). Remembering it may not be the effort and challenge of the running itself that we actually want, it may just be the benefit of having been running or going to the gym that we desire. What we seem to lack when we can’t get out of bed, is what we call willpower.

Hence everything we want to achieve in this life time sits on the far side of effective willpower. Without willpower we can do none of the things necessary to get that qualification, learn that instrument, get good at a sport, learn to sing, dance, cook, paint, fly a plane, race a motorbike, get rich, or get a body you want to enjoy . . . All exist on the other side of effective willpower.

The Solutions

Ironically the solution to a lack of willpower is actually quite straight forward. The problem is that it paradoxically requires some effort, determination and ultimately willpower to achieve. Who said the Universe did’t have a sense of humour! It would seem this central law of life – that reward is on the other side of effort, is an inescapable and fundamental truth you won’t find a way around, no matter how hard you look. The up side as physicist Albert Einstein said “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

You Can Train and Strengthen your Willpower

However once we can understand that willpower is another biological function we can develop like a muscle we can learn to train it. We can make it stronger, more flexible with greater stamina or endurance. It’s useful to recognise that we’re not talking about willpower as a purely mind thing anymore than strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness is a purely body thing. Now in the 21st Century it makes more sense to recognise we’re embodied minds down to our cells and beyond and hence strength, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness and willpower are all mind-body functions down to cells and beyond. This means we can see willpower more as a natural function of overall good health than some unique special case mental trait. This becomes clearer when we explore the specific kind of thing that effect willpower both negatively and positively.

This trainability of willpower also explains why we have better willpower at the start of the day than we do at the end. Willpower fatigues as the day goes on. This explains why it’s too easy to end up with the feeling you have a morning mind and an evening mind when it comes to food, alcohol and bedtime. What you want in the morning my have dissolved by the evening.

How to Develop your Willpower

1 - Reduce Stress

Have you ever noticed when life is good it’s easier to go to bed when you mean to, go for a short run and eat and drink what you really meant to. It’s like your head and heart are on the same team. Yet when life begins to feel like you’re being overwhelmed and stress becomes a chronic daily thing it all seems to fall apart. This is because when we’re stressed we tend to make more flight or fight survival now-decisions from the impulsive self, and less later-decisions from the considered self. Getting treatment, exercise, eating habits and bedtime all start to fall off the rails. Stress is quite simply corrosive to willpower!

The upside of this is that anything you can do to reduce stress in your life will increase your willpower and enable you to make decisions more from your considered self and less from your impulsive self. After all who do you want to make the long term decisions in your life, run your bank account, pension decisions, credit card spending, food buying and day to day responses with work colleagues and customers? Your considered self or your impulsive self?

The underlying problem is that stress and particularly chronic stress shifts the blood flow in the brain from the frontal cortex and so the considered self, to the midbrain and the impulsive self in anticipation of flight or fight responses. Responses that require you to focus on immediate, shortterm goals and outcomes. This shift reduces our ability to keep the big picture aspects of life in view. Buying a new 20m power boat, eating junk food and punching the boss may all feel really good now, but later they may not feel so great.

2 - Meditation

One of the key process that has been shown to improve willpower by reducing stress and creating physical changes in the blood flow to the frontal cortex is meditation. Changes of this sort can be seen on imaging from as little as 8 weeks daily meditation. In this sense meditation can be seen to include mindfulness and yoga practices in general.

“Meditation training improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. For example, regular meditators have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice -- brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.” – Stanford Medicine

3 - Cardio Vascular Training

The other key process that has been shown to help develop willpower is cardiovascular training. So includes running, circuit training, swimming, cycling or whatever challenges your cardio vascular system. Once again we can see this process is a true mind-body experience because it’s the very act of having to engage the willpower to do this challenging training that creates the physical changes in the pre-frontal cortex. Getting out of bed and going running quite literally makes it easier to get out of bed and go running. It’s also likely that the brain chemicals known as endorphins that training releases reduce our perception of life pain and stress making it easier to have good natural levels of willpower and self-control.

The important take home message about willpower therefore is that like a muscle it can be both developed over time or allowed to wither away over time. Hence use it or lose it! But just like any other function it can be over used and so fatigued.

4 - Save your Willpower for What’s important - Simplify your Choices.

It also seems from research that too many choices, such as at a buffet challenges our willpower, as does trying to succeed at too many New Years resolutions at once. It’s best to forget about the little things and aim big. Aim for improving your health or going for a new job. This helps to give us more willpower if it’s really what you want. Honesty about what you really want may also really help.

At the same time we also need to learn to notice where we’re making small choices and agreements in our life that are just clogging up our big goals in life. We need to learn to be more conscious about what we take on and agree to. Many people who are good with willpower and focused in their own lives end up being better at not taking things on and saying, “no” more often in life.

5 - Self Forgiveness and Being Kind to One’s Self

If stress is toxic to willpower we need to stop beating ourselves up and stressing over our lack of willpower. Being hard on ourselves therefore is often a way to fail with willpower. We must understand that old habit may be setting ourselves up to fail. Better to be self-compassionate and self-loving than to be hard or brutal. Don’t try to shame yourself into action – honesty, acceptance and inspiration work far better.

6 - Sharing the Load

It’s especially true of physical training that people do far better when they have a training partner or squad to train with. From the perspective of willpower it’s as if the willpower is shared and so it’s much easier to know you are training every Sunday at 10 am.

Training partners and squads also make the whole process more fun, no matter how gruelling it may be if you’r aiming for the top. Usain Bolt the sprinter had 14 people involved in his training from technique coaches, physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches. However he said that 5 of the people who he actually trained with in Jamaica were there just to make it more fun.

In summary . . .

  • Reduce your overall stress over your life situation in any way you can.

  • Use meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises or yoga to de-stress and open up the frontal lobe of your brain.

  • Engage in physical training especially cardiovascular fitness.

  • Simplify your choices in life. Focus on what is important and what will move you forward most in life. Focus on the big stuff that matters.

  • Be kind to yourself.

  • Share the load

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