The facts behind why humans have trouble making meaningful change, and Dr. NerdLove’s guide for how to level up in your life.
Every year we go through a familiar ritual that culminates with a failure of willpower. Everyone makes promises about how they’re going to do something better in the new year and then promptly forgets all about it before the month is even over. In fact, right now, I’m watching the usual influx of New Years gym memberships filter out after clogging the treadmills and weight machines for three weeks. Similarly, people are giving up on their promises to quit smoking, to eat better, to flirt more, to learn a new language – all of those self-improvement regimens that were supposed to make them better people in 2015.
It’s not that they don’t sincerely intend to do better. It’s all because they lack the willpower.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that they’re weak or bad people. Most of us don’t realize that willpower is a finite resource. When you run out of willpower you fall into a state known as “ego-depletion” – it becomes incredibly difficult, almost impossible even, to control your impulses. This is why it’s so easy to let your resolution to hit the gym five times a week slip to three… then to two… then to “haven’t been in two months”. This is why when you’ve had a long day, all you want to do is collapse on the couch and zone out to a Castle marathon on Netflix. It’s why diets notoriously don’t work. You reach the limits of your willpower and your ability to resist the siren call of pizza evaporates into thin air like Green Lantern’s ring running out of power.
Any form of self-improvement is dependent on willpower… so how do you make your will stronger?
Willlpower Is Like A Muscle
The first step in building up your willpower is to recognize that willpower isn’t unchangeable. When we hear people talk about people who are weak-willed or who lack willpower, we’re making the assumption that your willpower is static; some people have lots, others have little and there’s nothing you can do about it.
(Rather like the belief that either you’re good with women or you’re not, actually…)
But that’s not the case. Willpower is like a muscle; it takes work and discipline, but you can build your willpower up and make it stronger. And the key to building your willpower… is to use it to exhaustion as often as possible.
Confused? Stick with me for a second as I vastly over-simplify things.
Muscles grow bigger and stronger through exercise. By straining the muscle to its capacity to contract, you introduce micro-tears into the muscle fibers. When those tears heal, they increase the muscle’s bulk and elasticity, increasing its ability to bear more tension and weight. Taxing your muscles to exhaustion prompts the muscle cells to increase the amount of mitochondria – the power plants of your cells – which enables them to work harder for longer.
Taxing your willpower to exhaustion works in a similar manner; draining your willpower increases your mental and emotional stamina. The more that you push your limits, the stronger your willpower becomes.
The problem is that, in keeping with the muscle metaphor, we’re doing all the wrong exercises. Most of us are using our willpower in the wrong way.
You Have To Use Your Willpower Wisely
Part of the reason why we have such a hard time sticking to self-improvement plans is that we’re indiscriminate in how we use our willpower. We squander it on meaningless tasks and when when we need it, we find we’ve run out.
To get nerdy for the moment, consider the Green Lantern Corps. Their rings can create just about anything they imagine, as long as they will it into existence. However, the rings have a limited charge; at a certain point, their rings run out of power and their energy constructs disappear. If you had a power ring and expend that power needlessly – showing off to your friends, say, by creating giant Hot Wheels tracks – you end up draining the tank and leaving yourself vulnerable when you need it most. If you’re careful with how well you expend your energy however, you’re able to to pull off some amazing feats when they count.
Alternately, let’s go back to the muscle metaphor. If you lift too much weight too quickly, you exhaust yourself; this leads to using poor form and risking injury.
So it is with willpower. People tend to abandon their New Years resolutions because they’ve taken on too much all at once. They’re using their willpower badly – chasing a goal that requires more willpower than they have and causing themselves to fail once they run out. Building your willpower doesn’t do any good if you’re only making your goals harder to achieve in the process.
Instead, you want to use your willpower wisely. You want to learn how to parcel it out efficiently as you’re building it up instead of blowing it all at once. You don’t just leap off your couch and run a marathon, nor do you bench five hundred pounds your first time in the gym. You build yourself up slowly, incrementally, getting you closer to your goals and making yourself stronger in the process.
So let’s talk about proper training form for your willpower.
Start With Little Changes
The biggest mistake people make when they start a self-improvement program is that they bite off more than they can chew. Someone who’s trying to lose weight, for example, decides they want to reach an arbitrary weight within an absurd amount of time. So they go on an incredibly calorically restricted diet (say, 700 calories per day) and and equally impossible exercise routine (three hours in the gym, four days a week)… and by week three, the ego-depletion has kicked in and they’re on the couch with three quarter-pounders with cheese and an empty sack of fries.
Not only are they trying to accomplish too much, too quickly, but they’re making it needlessly difficult on themselves. They’ve chosen a method that’s impractical at best – costing more willpower to maintain – and they haven’t factored in issues like the opportunity cost, which drains even more willpower to try to fit it all in. As a result: they burn out before they ever realize it.
Same with guys who want to go from social shut-ins to playboys as quickly as possible. They go out every night, making cold approaches and trying to muscle through their approach anxiety and before they know it, they’re exhausted, emotionally drained and deciding that it’s all bullshit because it can’t work and they’re not getting any better.
Rather than trying to push for immediate success, you want to make small changes. Instead of radically restructuring your exercise and eating patterns, you want to make small, simple changes – decreasing the amount of simple carbohydrates and increasing the green leafy vegetables, for example, or taking a 15 minute walk every day. Instead of trying to roll into the club like “What up, I’ve got social anxiety and I’d really like to go home”1 you want to spend time making simple, low-investment approaches in order to get used to talking to people.
Yes, these small changes mean that you’re not going to achieve your goals as fast as you’d like. But making small changes takes less willpower to implement. They’re more convenient, which means the opportunity cost is lower. They’re easier to maintain, which means you won’t reach the point of ego-depletion as quickly. And – even more importantly – because they’re simple and easy to maintain, they become the foundations of new habits.
And those new habits are the key to improving your willpower.
Better Habits Mean Better Willpower
Building your willpower means learning how to conserve it instead of wasting it unnecessarily. And one of the best ways to conserve willpower is to build new and better habits.
Habits, after all, are things that we do almost without thinking. They’re the actions that are just an instinctual part of our lives; they don’t require the expenditure of willpower because they come to us so naturally that they’re almost effortless.
Take driving a car; when you start off learning how to drive a car, it requires your full attention. You’re having to make sure to remember when to signal, stay aware of the traffic around you, keep your hands at 10 and 2, apply appropriate pressure to the brakes, and so-forth. But as you spend more time driving, it gradually becomes second-nature; it doesn’t require the same level of conscious thought because it’s become muscle memory.
Building habits is a key part of self-improvement because it’s a way of conserving your willpower and expending it in areas that will bring the greatest results for the investment. For someone who’s trying to lose weight, for example, expending the willpower on resisting certain foods is less productive (and more costly in terms of willpower) than making healthy eating a habit. The trick is to smart small – those small changes I mentioned – and build upon them. By making something part of your daily routine, you reduce the opportunity cost and the effort it takes to perform it in the first place. When you’re used to taking 15 minute walks every day, it’s not as difficult to make them into 20 minute walks, or to start jogging instead.
And by cultivating those habits, you make building new, related habits even easier. Regular exercise, for example, is a keystone of other good habits – it inspires you to eat better, to be more conscientious and self-aware. Similarly, being more social in little ways – making brief small-talk with people you see every day – makes approaching strangers easier and feel more natural, which then means that it takes less willpower to perform.
Deliver Yourself From Temptation
Of course, another critical part of building your willpower is making sure that you’re not expending it needlessly. You’d be surprised at just what can drain your willpower. Even things that seem simple – like having too many choices in jam – can drain your willpower. The more decisions you find yourself having to make (or resist) the more you drain your willpower. It seems absurd, but decision fatigue is a real thing, and it contributes to ego-depletion.
One of the mistakes we make is that we put the things we need to resist right in front of us and end up forcing ourselves to constantly have to expend willpower to not indulge. When that bag of potato chips is sitting on the table in front of you, you have to make a conscious decision not to eat them. Every time you glance over at it, you’re making another metaphorical saving throw versus temptation with a stacking penalty; eventually you’re going to give in. Same with other forms of junk food. We’re inherently lazy; we may know we’ve got fruit in the fridge, but that candy bar is right there. If you see it, odds are high that you’re going to eat it. Out of sight, out of mind definitely applies when it comes to snacks. In fact, the more barriers you put between yourself and the object of your tempting desire, the less likely you are to actually give in and indulge. Even something as absurd and simple as forcing yourself to eat with your non-dominant hand can disrupt the pattern and keep you from mindlessly giving in.
This applies to other forms of temptation as well. While the Internet has become a central point in all of our lives, it’s also one of the biggest killers of productivity imaginable. There’s nothing more likely to kill your ability to get work done than the need to alt-tab over to Twitter to see what your friends are saying. Or to give into your Pavlovian response to the email notification chime. Or to play a couple quick rounds of Candy Crush on your smartphone. Speaking for myself, when I’m writing, I have to kill every single app and webpage that isn’t absolutely necessary for what I’m working on right then and there. If I don’t, then I risk blowing precious time (and willpower) on reading Tumblr and Reddit and Facebook and end up losing my momentum. So to avoid expending willpower to not check up on your favorite webcomics at work, you need too minimize potential distractions and temptations – turn off notifications, set your smartphone to Do Not Disturb, close (or block) all social media apps, etc. Just as with food, imposing barriers between yourself and temptation will make you less likely to give in. Signing out of your apps and services gives you an extra step that makes that impulse to check Twitter less tempting. Adding 2-factor authentication is not only smart in terms of IT security, but it also makes it easier to resist wasting time online. If you have an especially hard time resisting the siren call of Facebook, there are browser extensions and computer apps that will lock down your system for you. It’s easier to conserve willpower when you don’t force yourself to expend it in the first place.
You can also leverage this inherent laziness to your advantage. By making the habits and behaviors you want to encourage easier and more accessible, you expend less willpower in choosing them. Hiding the junk food makes it easier to resist, but leaving fruit out means you’re more likely to choose the healthier option. If you’re trying to exercise more, making sure your running shoes and jump-rope are visible prompts you to get a workout in instead of losing three hours in the Hinterlands on Dragon Age: Inquisition.
But speaking of gaming…
Let Yourself Recover
Fitness experts will tell you that one of the most important parts of working out is giving yourself time to recover. If you over-train your muscles, you run the risk of doing yourself serious injury; rest is a necessary part of letting your body recover and get stronger. The same applies to willpower – if you’re never letting your willpower replenish, then you’re never going to improve and you’ll only hit ego-depletion levels that much faster.
This is why it’s important to factor in breaks and relaxation; it lets your brain rest and recover and your willpower to recharge. Taking time to veg out can be as important as developing that iron-clad sense of self-discipline.
One important way of recovering your willpower is getting something to eat. Studies have found that ego-depletion and decision fatigue frequently correspond with lower levels of glucose in the brain. When you’re feeling emotionally drained, grabbing a quick snack can make the difference between rallying and resisting further temptation and giving in to whatever you’re trying to resist. Just make sure you’re grabbing something healthy with natural sugars – an apple, some grapes, or a banana, rather than a candy bar or pretzels. Similarly, making sure you get plenty of sleep is key to recovering your willpower. If you’re not sleeping well, everything suffers – including your ability to bounce back emotionally.
Another way of improving your willpower while still giving yourself time to recover is to work in intervals – structured periods of intense, focused concentration followed by rest periods to allow your willpower to top itself back up. There are a number of popular ways of achieving this. The Pomodoro technique, for example is a popular one: you set a timer for 25 minutes and focus all of your attention on one particular task for that full 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, you give yourself a five minute break, then resume for another 25 minutes. After four 25-minute intervals, you take a longer break.
Other people suggest writing sprints. Fantasy author Kevin Hearn, for example, takes part in the #1k1hr challenge – writing 1000 words (even if they’re garbage) in one hour. It’s an intense, focused burst of activity, followed by a break. It’s a way of forcing yourself to shut out distractions for a specific amount of time and then giving yourself a breather at the end.
Taking a break – whether it’s 30 minutes to play Fire Emblem on your 3Ds or check your email, or giving yourself a cheat day during your diet – are important, because they make those temptations easier to resist. It’s much easier to say “Not now, but later” to temptation than it is to say “No, never”. Those moments of delayed gratification not only are less costly in terms of your willpower but also help prevent the inevitable extinction burst from kicking in and ruining all the hard work you’ve achieved.
But what if you screw up? What if your willpower fades and you give in to whatever temptation you were trying to avoid?
Well, you need to be willing to go easy on yourself. As with any self-improvement program, it’s important to realize that you will screw up and have setbacks. It’s part of how we learn and grow. The key is not to let those setbacks throw you off your game entirely. Just as one day of eating badly doesn’t mean your diet is shot, your willpower fading doesn’t mean that you’ve failed to improve.
Muster your resolve and stand back up. Figure out how you exhausted yourself and work on ways to make sure you avoid it in the future. And before you know it, you’ll be a master of willpower, ready to shine in even the blackest night…
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
Lead photo: Flickr/Vox Efx