Willpower: Train Your Brain to Do The Things That Matter Most

I struggle constantly with willpower, and I know that I’m not alone. It seems like in this modern age it’s harder than ever to convince ourselves to do the important stuff, whether that’s work, getting in shape, taking care of ourselves, or any of the other things that we have to do whether we want to or not. That’s what willpower is: the self-control to do the things that matter most, even — especially — when we don’t want to. It’s a trait that has been crucial to human survival. So why is it sometimes so difficult to access?

That’s what willpower is: the self-control to do the things that matter most, even — especially — when we don’t want to.

Kelly McGonigal is considered the worldwide expert on willpower, and her book The Willpower Instinct is a scientific-yet-compassionate read for anyone who struggles with accessing their willpower. She describes willpower as a struggle between two sides of ourselves. There’s the long-term thinking side that knows you need to work, or take care of your body. Then there’s the instant gratification side of you that says, well, I’d rather not. I’d really rather be comfortable than uncomfortable.

We need both sides for survival, but our modern world encourages us to hang out in the instant gratification area of our minds and it can be hard to leave that cozy place we’ve become so comfortable in. Yet that’s no way to live. We need to be able to look towards the bigger picture, tolerate discomfort and push ourselves to be better.

Many people blame their various life problems on a lack of willpower, myself included. So — how do we access it when we need it the most?

Willpower is like a muscle. As you train your brain (you’re literally rewiring it), your willpower gets stronger.

It’s important to understand that willpower is a limited and expensive resource. Throughout the day as you make decisions, put up with distractions, and work on your goals, staying in your long-term-thinking side of the brain, your willpower is depleted. By the end of the day, it’s oh-so-hard to get to the gym or resist that extra helping of dessert or catch up on work. But: willpower is also like a muscle. As you train your brain (you’re literally rewiring it), your willpower gets stronger, and it takes longer to deplete your reserves.

So there’s hope for us all, even me. We all hold in our minds and bodies the capacity to be willpower machines. Here’s where we start:

Find Your Strength

It can be a challenge to find that part of yourself that is willing to sacrifice temporary discomfort for long-term gain. But it is there. One thing McGonigal notes is that often we fail at our goals because they are not truly important to us. If your goals aren’t aligned with what matters most to you, with how you want to impact the world, yourself, and the people around you, then it can be excruciating to find the willpower to pursue those goals. So, the first step is to ask yourself what matters most to you, and use this to summon your willpower and apply it to the things you care about.When struggling with self-control, I try to pull myself out of the moment. I view the big picture, and I remember how today’s goals will help me get there.For me, making the world a better place (even just a tiny bit) and taking care of myself are what matters most. To do one (improving the world), I have to do the other (taking care of myself), and this is how I find and replenish my willpower.

When struggling with self-control, I try to pull myself out of the moment. I view the big picture, and I remember how today’s goals will help me get there. And somehow, when you’re looking at the big picture, doing the little things, today’s things, don’t seem so hard. Because right now that’s all I have to worry about: doing today’s things that relate to my goal. Tomorrow, I will do tomorrow’s things. Don’t try to fight the instant gratification side of yourself, because it will exhaust you. Instead, focus on what you can control: your actions.This comes back to something McGonigal stresses: Don’t try to control what you can’t control, you’ll just feel stuck and overwhelmed. Don’t try to fight the instant gratification side of yourself, because it will exhaust you. Instead, focus on what you can control: your actions. Your freedom is in your choices. Embrace that freedom.

This truth that I’m working towards something meaningful, however slowly, is where I find my strength to choose temporary discomfort. And this is where you will find your strength, too.

Be Aware of Your Mind

Mindfulness is the ability to watch your thoughts and feelings and sensations, in the moment, without judgement. To be aware of what’s really going on in your head. To read between the lines of what you tell yourself. A big part of willpower is just being conscious of your choices: McGonigal says, “Willpower is about being able to hold opposites. So I can feel the emotion, I can feel the craving, and at the very same time, I just make my awareness big enough to hold my commitment to make a different choice. Your ability to hold those opposites is what gives people willpower over time.”

Temptation, the downfall of the willpower-impaired everywhere. That oh-so-human sensation, the craving with your whole being for something, whatever it may be. I’ve always struggled with temptation, and have lived most of my life as a slave to it. A craving pops up, I satisfy it. When I was younger and dumber I thought this was a form of self-care, but it’s the opposite. Over time this has weakened me. It turned me into an instant-gratification monkey and I’ve had to work very hard to find the strength to listen to cravings without acting on them, to rewire my brain.

Mindfulness is the ability to watch your thoughts and feelings and sensations, in the moment, without judgement…A big part of willpower is just being conscious of your choices.

The crazy thing is, mindfulness reduces cravings. So just listening to your temptations helps them go away. Mindfulness rewires your brain. When you crave something, your brain is processing multiple concepts: the object you crave, the stress of not having the object, the feeling of desire, how to satisfy your craving, and so on. It appears that mindfulness — just the simple act of stepping in and watching this all go down inside your head —disrupts this complex brain process, and dissolves the craving over time. The more you watch and disrupt the process, the more you train your brain to default to this new process of watching the craving but not submitting. Over time you’ve rewired your brain, and your willpower muscle is now strong and healthy.

Be Gentle on Yourself

This is a lesson that I will learn over and over, but has been a particular theme this year. For most people, it’s natural for us to be gentle on others, but unnatural to be gentle on ourselves. It’s a disease, really — or it feels that way sometimes.It’s natural for us to be gentle on others, but unnatural to be gentle on ourselves.I learned this lesson earlier this year when I quit drinking alcohol. It was an experiment, to go clean for a month to see how it affected my depression. After a month, I felt great, so I stopped for good. It’s been surprisingly easy. But here’s why: when I quit, I made a conscious decision to go easy on myself. If I had a drink here or there, it was fine. The world wouldn’t end. I left room for mistakes. I didn’t beat myself up and go into a downward spiral of guilt and shame if I had a drink at a friend’s house. I was easy on myself, and as a result, there was no pressure. I was free to do as I wished, and of course, because quitting alcohol aligned with what matters most to me (self-care via making the world a better place), quitting alcohol has been a painless, and even pleasant, experience.

You will not fail miserably if you take it easy on yourself. You can be compassionate with yourself and still achieve your goals.

Of course, this won’t work for everyone, especially with alcohol. I’m just using it as an example: the world will not end if you give yourself a break. You will not fail miserably if you take it easy on yourself. You can be compassionate with yourself and still achieve your goals. I promise.

Science backs me up here: McGonigal found that self-compassion was actually more motivating than self-criticism. We think we have to beat ourselves up to accomplish our goals, to mold ourselves into the humans we think we ought to be. But one of the most freeing truths I’ve encountered is that you do not. 

McGonigal found that self-compassion was actually more motivating than self-criticism. 

We succeed best when we feel safe and nurtured and cared for. But we don’t need to look outside ourselves to find that safety. We must build it inside. We must give ourselves permission to mess up. We must forgive ourselves when we do mess up. We must stop shaming ourselves into accomplishing our goals, because as much as we think it may work, in the end, it doesn’t. Or it does work and we’re miserable. The real solution is to be kind to yourself. It’s not easy, but with practice it becomes easier, and eventually (so they tell me), it’s second nature.

Conclusion

To me, willpower is relying on your inner strength instead of being scared by it. It’s so tempting to get in our own way of pursuing our goals. Willpower isn’t just finding the strength to do something you want to have done. Willpower is finding the strength to recognize unhealthy thoughts, to be aware of your emotions, your cravings, your desires and goals, to hold all of these things inside yourself, and to find the strength to do the thing you really want to do, to have done, to be the kind of person that you want to be. We all have this strength. It’s just a matter of finding it, training it, and becoming it.

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