How many times did you wake up feeling like you could conquer the world? You set ambitious goals for the day, you put on your best attire and walked out the door with a big smile on your face. But eventually, life took over.
Traffic, emails, work, family, and everything else you have around slowly but steadily started to drain your energy and made you feel exhausted. You run out of battery, and the only solution that seemed viable was to rely on more caffeine. When that stopped working, all the temptations around you started to look much more appealing, and that sense of drive and commitment you had before slowly faded away. You run out of willpower.
Willpower: what is it? Why is it limited?
The American Psychology Association describes willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”
In the book The Willpower Instinct (1), Dr. Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. explains how every person’s willpower is limited, and slowly depletes throughout the day. The more “willpower challenges” you face, the quicker your reserve drains. Dr. McGonigal divided the different types of willpower challenges you might encounter in three categories:
I will: we face this type of challenge whenever we should do something, but we simply don’t feel like getting it done right now.
I won’t: we face this challenge when we try to resist temptation, or we try to keep cool in stressful situations.
I want: this is a particular type of challenge where we keep track of our long term goals, dreams, and desires. In this instance, we feel like we should take action right now to come one step closer to the goal.
It’s easy to recognize it when you face a willpower challenge because you literally “feel it in your body.” Imagine being really hungry and walking in front of a bakery. The sight and the smell of pastries quickly triggers an “I won’t” type of challenge, and it takes a severe amount of effort and energy to walk away.
Every time you manage to win one of those challenges, a little bit of your willpower reserve gets used. The more challenges you face daily, the harder it will be to stay true to your goals.
Can you train or recharge your willpower?
A growing body of research (2) suggests that willpower should be considered a muscle. To strengthen it you should exercise it regularly, but you should not overwork it. Therefore we shouldn’t try to “be good” at all times. Instead, we should learn how to relax and recharge our willpower.
The general advice on how to improve willpower involves sleep, proper nutrition, and regular exercise. This broad and general recommendation is often not downright applicable by most, because it consists of changing various daily habits. Luckily three very effective hacks have been discovered, that have an immediate effect on our willpower and take just a few minutes to apply.
1- Focused breathing: Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the release of calming hormones while reducing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and catecholamines. To make this effective, you should deeply and slowly inhale through the nose for at least five seconds. Fill your belly with air first, then your chest, and when there’s no more space for air, still try to do tiny inhalations through the nose. You should feel a pulling sensation around your neck and trapezius muscles. Once your lungs are full, try to hold the breath for five seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth for at least five seconds. If you repeat this process ten to twenty times, you should feel dramatically more relaxed. Use this method several times a day, especially when you’re experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety.
2- Reward yourself when you accomplish a micro goal
According to a recent study (3), frequent instant rewards can boost motivation, and therefore, willpower. Creating your own reward system can help you to accomplish your to-do list, and also resist temptations. Since every individual has different tastes, you should come up with creative ideas about the small and frequent rewards you will give yourself upon winning any willpower challenge. You can see this hack in practice in Apps like the popular Duolinguo, where after completing each lesson you get presented with a chance to open a treasure chest. This rewarding system seems to keep the users much more likely to keep learning new lessons.
3- Taking cold showers
Your body has an autonomic response to cold water. Getting into a cold shower is a difficult (but minor) willpower challenge on its own. As I previously mentioned, winning a willpower challenge strengthens your willpower muscle. Having a morning cold shower, on top of having multiple health benefits (4), will set you up for a positive winning streak of further challenges.
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