Ok let’s get it out of the way early on – this article will likely divide opinion. However, if you choose to be pissed off or butthurt about its contents, then you are probably one of the people who need this article the most. You’re welcome.

First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am well aware how stressful it can be to say no to something which, on the surface at least, you don’t want to say no to. I was a smoker for 5 years and when I decided to give up, it wasn’t just a case of never ever smoking again. It was a series of progressively lengthy failures which eventually led me to the point where I no longer smoke and willpower isn’t even involved. What I mean to say is, I’m not just making this up. I’m speaking from personal experience.

Willpower is often considered to be some kind of esoteric quality beyond mortal comprehension. It is seemingly possessed by a chosen few while the rest of us flounder around, powerless to our whims and outside influence. It is considered by some to be ‘something you either have or don’t’. ‘It’s something you’re born with’ and if you don’t have it, ‘there’s not much you can do about it’. ‘It’s developed in children but not in adults’. ‘I wish I had more willpower but…’

The list goes on and on.

Well, it’s time to call bullshit.

Research in this area is still developing, but the way science now views willpower has changed. In stark contrast to commonly held belief, willpower is no longer considered to be a finite resource subject to ego depletion (if you’re not familiar with the term, have a quick look on Wikipedia, it’s a key theme of old-school thought on willpower). It actually has qualities much more akin to muscle and it can be developed by anybody and everybody. As with a muscle, however, it requires consistent training stress and recovery to develop the qualities we want from it.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at the 2 elements required to develop willpower – training and recovery.

Training

The training element of willpower is pretty simple. You find something you want to do, whether it’s giving up biscuits, booze or cigarettes, it doesn’t matter. It could be going to the gym 3 times a week consistently – just pick your poison. Once you’ve decided, just do that thing. It’s as easy as that. Think of this as flexing your willpower muscles. Now, as with strength training, it’s important not to try to improve too many things at once as this will inevitably lead to burnout and failure to achieve anything. Focus on ONE thing and make that your willpower training. The idea is to keep going for as long as you can with the thing you’ve chosen. Eventually, one of two things will happen:

  1. You will suffer willpower fatigue and eventually slip back into old habits
  2. You will break through and develop a new habit/let go of a bad habit

The good news here is that both outcomes are positive.

Let me explain. If you manage to go 4 weeks without a cigarette (for example) before backsliding on a night out after a few drinks, that’s 4 weeks longer than you would have managed if you didn’t try at all. Therefore, you win.

The key here is not to feel too bad about it and instead feel good about building new willpower muscle. All about “dem gainz, bruh!”.

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE THOUGH, SMARTY PANTS. The next step is the most important piece of information in this article, so pay attention. If you then decide to give it 6 months before trying again to give up smoking, guess what? Those willpower gainz you made? They’ll be gone. You’ll be starting from scratch again. It is not easy to get back on board when we fall off the wagon but it’s the only way to make meaningful progress. The more times you can do this, the stronger your willpower will become. By the time you manage to overcome your first willpower test (whatever it is), your next challenge will be easier because your metaphorical willpower muscles will be bulging from all the training you’ve been doing. Your bad habits won’t know what’s hit them.

Recovery

In terms of willpower development, recovery is not altogether dissimilar from the recovery process involved in making progress in our physical training. If we train any muscle group 7 days a week with no breaks, we will break down, possibly injuring ourselves in the process. The same is true of willpower. If we constantly have to flex our willpower muscles, the fatigue will set in much quicker. This can be extremely disheartening and damaging to future efforts. The difference between physical training and willpower training is that while training the body usually requires us to be at the gym/track/pool, the challenges of willpower training can be omnipresent throughout the day, particularly with something like dieting, for instance.

So how to work around this? Let’s use booze as the example here. For the majority of people, drinking is something which we do in the evening and if we’re getting on the sauce, it’s usually a weekend. These are the typical times of day where we engage in the activity we’re trying to curb. Drinking is normally a sociable thing to do. We go for a pint after work with colleagues, we have a glass of wine/a beer on the couch at home watching TV, we go to the pub over the weekend to catch up with friends. We all know how it goes.

Going back to my point. Growing those willpower muscles involves allowing ourselves the opportunity to say no occasionally (we need to train remember) but also removing ourselves from a constant barrage of willpower tests. Unfortunately, this means that we will have to avoid at least some of the situations where we are tempted to drink. This doesn’t mean we have to become hermits and sever ties with all our friends, it just means we have to take responsibility for ourselves and get creative with our schedule:

  • Usually, drink after work? Why not go out to lunch with your work friends and colleagues instead? You’re much less likely to have any booze because you’ve got the afternoon at work to think about but you’re not sacrificing your relationships.
  • Drink when you get home? Next time you run out of beer/wine, DON’T BUY ANY MORE. It’s pretty simple (but also REALLY HARD, I know). That way your willpower only gets tested once; when you’re walking down the booze aisle at the supermarket. If there’s none at home, it’s not going to be as hard to ignore your craving for a beer.
  • Go to the pub on the weekend with your mates? Why not organise something to do during the day? If you’ve got kids, get them involved and you’re even less likely to drink. If you can, drive there! You’ll be left with not much choice but to avoid a tipple.

The point here is that you have to make your willpower tests as easy to fit around your daily life as possible, or eventually, you will rebel against yourself because your new system is incompatible with the old one.

Take Home Points

It’s worth noting that whatever you’re trying to develop your willpower for, it isn’t forever. Developing willpower takes time; there is no shortcut and it requires you to keep failing and trying again. The good news, however, is that once you’ve cracked the process, it becomes much easier to replicate. It becomes a reflex action, a habit, formed with discipline and one that nobody can take away from you. The result of this is that every victory – and every failure – makes you stronger and stronger. Developing willpower will have a knock on effects for every area of your life. If you haven’t read it already, have a look back at my article ‘The Importance of Failing Hard’, as these two go hand-in-hand to help make you a more resilient character.

Remember: you can do it. You are in charge of your own fate. Get a plan and apply yourself.

Resources:

http://www.willpowered.co/learn/strengthen-your-willpower

Jocko Podcast Episode 103 – “Human Will is a Superpower When Called Upon. “Recollections of Rifleman Harris”

https://hbr.org/2016/11/have-we-been-thinking-about-willpower-the-wrong-way-for-30-years

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/cover_story/2016/03/ego_depletion_an_influential_theory_in_psychology_may_have_just_been_debunked.html