Force of Will: Is Willpower What You Really Need?

Today, I’m going to bench press 400lbs.
Never done it before, but I’m serious this time. Even though I haven’t been training for it, I wrote my goal on my fridge so Robin will hold me accountable. And I think my lack of practice actually gives me an edge, right? Because there’s nothing telling me I can’t do it…and I’ve got willpower…
Force of Will: The Science of “Willpower”
Since the early days of “Physical Culture” 50 years ago, the most-hyped element of success in fitness has always been “willpower.” In other words, “you can force yourself to do anything if you just grit your teeth.” But new research has a lot to teach us about how willpower works, how it can be improved, and what’s really required for success.
First, let’s define “willpower”:
The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
A limited resource capable of being depleted.
The first four are obvious, but the last is only now becoming apparent. You can run out of willpower, just as you can run out of energy. Imagine your reserve of will as a gas tank, and consider this typical day:
1. You’re tired, but get up when your alarm clock sounds. You use a bit of willpower.
2. You want to eat a cereal bar for breakfast, but know it’s not good for you, so you cook an egg instead. Willpower -1.
3. You don’t want to take that first phone call in your office because you know it’s a cranky customer. But you do. Willpower -2.
4. You know you shouldn’t have that third coffee before lunch, so you don’t. Willpower -1.
5. Your spouse texts you a snarky email about taking all the good fruit for lunch. You resist the urge to escalate the argument. Willpower -3…
By the time you arrive home, tired and emotionally bankrupt from stress, you’ve used your supply of willpower. NOW try to make dinner and pry yourself into your running shoes: if you don’t truly love running, it’s not going to happen. And this effect multiplies over the week. By Friday night, it’s no wonder the couch looks so appealing.
Luckily, willpower is trainable, just like a muscle.
When you use it, willpower gets challenged. Then, when you rest, it becomes stronger.
But use it without rest, and it will continue to weaken – Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome is as true for your psyche as it is for your quads. Add stress, remove stress, supercompensate; add stress, add more stress, die.
How do you build your willpower?
1. Try something new (or a little more of something you’re already doing.)
2. Give yourself some leeway elsewhere. Don’t join a gym AND try to go full paleo AND take on more stress at work AND sign your kid up for hockey in one day.
3. Pick something you LIKE. If your workout is your reward, you don’t need willpower anymore. If you really like pineapples, it’s easy to eat fruit instead of cookies.
4. Take it easy on yourself. Habits aren’t changed quickly.
5. Slowly become comfortable with “uncomfortable.” You can practice things you dislike until they become easier: social situations, novelty, burpees.
Special bonus: just as willpower can be depleted by your job, your diet, your family and your workout, building your willpower will also improve all of those things. Sticking with a diet will improve your desire to exercise. Doing hard workouts will make your job a LOT easier. And workplace success can mean a happier parent in the evenings.
Training your “willpower” is a lot like training your bench press: you can build up to anything if you practice. But don’t expect a huge personal best on the first day.


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