Willpower – A Finite Mental Resource?

Every time you decide to do something you’re not excited about, you’re using willpower, be it making a difficult phone call, saying no to a donut, or getting ready to go to the gym.

Willpower requires mental effort, and mental resources. There’s a reason that most of us slip up and run out of willpower at the end of the day, or if we’ve had a bad night’s sleep.

Because we often prefer the easy/lazy option, or the most pleasurable choice, it can be difficult to deny ourselves this promise of pleasure and comfort by taking the healthier or more productive choice, by expending willpower.

Willpower is such an important influence in our lives that you can better guess at a child’s future success by measuring their willpower, rather than their intelligence.

With this knowledge what are some strategies we can employ to increase our reserve of willpower, and make it more effective?

  1. Sleep

When you’re talking about mental energy it’s obvious that sleep has a huge impact. Sleep deprivation can cause a whole raft of negative effects, as toxins build up in our brains. Getting adequate sleep will give you more mental energy, which will mean you can use willpower more throughout the day.

If you’re feeling tempted more than usual by sugary food that’s a great sign you’re reserves are running low, as the brain looks to grab more quick energy it needs. Consider instead taking a 15-20 minute nap (with an optional caffeinated drink beforehand) to allow yourself to recharge your mental energy for the remainder of the day.

If you don’t have time or space for a nap, try 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation for a mental energy recharge.

2. Train Willpower

Learning new skills requires repetition. Nobody can read or write the first time they try. When you’re building up the skill of willpower, you will strengthen the pathways within your brain to make those signals more efficient, a vital part of learning.

If you struggle with temptation, put that item on display. Every time you walk past a bowl of sweets you can tell yourself ‘I’m saying no’ and feel good about it. Start the exercise just after you’ve eaten and you’ll make it easier to say no, as the initial temptation is reduced.

3 Environment Design (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)

This is moment when I get to completely contradict the previous strategy! When you need to stretch the willpower as long as possible, the most effective strategy is to remove temptation.

Throwing your sweets, alcohol or cigarettes away makes it much harder to be tempted by them. When the causes of willpower are removed, you’ll be able to use it much more sparingly.

When you’re tempted by laziness, make the productive thing the easier option. Drop your car/house keys at the gym, so you can’t skip the gym and just go home after work.

4 Don’t Feel Guilty

If you slip, you get feelings of guilt and shame. This strong emotion can instigate stress, pushing you towards more comforting pleasurable choices to mitigate the stress. When this happens you can start to binge bad behaviour in an attempt to get comfort.

If instead you are aware that a slip and the feeling of guilt can be temporary, you’ll be much more likely to use willpower effectively next time.

It’s always bearing in mind that we can’t act like robots, and that our willpower will sometimes fail. With some of these strategies we can stay on track more often, and shift towards better choices more often.

For further reading on willpower and the science behind it take a look at Kelly McGonigal’s book ‘The Willpower Instinct.

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Thanks for reading!

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