The Complete Guide to Will Power

It has now been more than a month since a major part of the world’s population has been under lockdown. While a large part of the race is facing grave risks to health and livelihood, I know it could sound frivolous to be attending to concerns like flagging will power. But, I do so in the optimism that this too shall pass and when it does, we would all rather get out stronger. Of what I have realised, if we are to bring that to fruition, getting a handle on will power is going to play a big part.

When the lockdown started, like most endeavours I started off strong with great gusto, making a usual list of things I hoped to complete, beyond the mundane callings of work. Being the self-proclaimed determined sorts, I went on to put that list on a power point slide and made it my desktop wallpaper. I even went on to pass an online exam I had enrolled for, pre-lockdown.

But, gradually the slump came.

I started downloading more and more games on my iPad. Small yet irritable tasks began to get postponed. The real wake up call came when my husband’s smirks turned into an insight-driven lecture about how much time I had wasted on the latest game I found myself addicted to. Suddenly, my mind began to buzz with all the things I had seemingly left undone and I finally breached the level of self disgust it sometimes takes me to really get my a** moving. 

What is willpower?

While there is a definition on Wikipedia, I thought this definition from the American Psychology Association made things so much more clear –

“At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”

-American Psychology Association

For instance, if you have a goal of losing weight in the foreseeable future, not giving in to the immediate temptation of that mouth-watering chocolate cupcake with the buttercream frosting and sprinkles is going to need some solid will power. Or, if you are working to pay off your credit card debt, saying no to a drinking plan with friends will again need you to muster that will power.

Since I have had some interest in neurobiology, let’s look at it from that perspective. As Robert Sapolsky explains in his awesome book Behave, there are two major parts of the brain – mesolimbic system and frontal cortex. The mesolimbic system is the area from which a lot of our emotional decisions are driven considering it counts it’s returns on investment in terms of the dopamine rush or the sense of pleasure we derive. On the other hand, frontal cortex is the last of the brain’s parts to evolve and is really the bad cop of the team. But, as I mentioned in my Behave post, no one can say it better than Sapolsky:

Adult life is filled with consequential forks in the road where the right thing is definitely harder. Navigating these successfully is the portfolio of the frontal cortex...

-Behave, Robert Sapolsky

In essence, at a time of conflicting desires will power helps the frontal cortex emerge victorious over the mesolimbic system.

Why is will power important?

But then, aren’t we the abbreviation obsessed gender of FOMO and YOLO where we don’t want to miss out and we also want to experience everything right now! Then why do we even need to bother about a party pooper like will power?

1. The best things in life are not instantly gratifying

Oh instant gratification, where do I begin with thee! Instant gratification is like the devil incarnate everywhere. On this topic, I will ask you to ponder only on two aspects. One, how long things with instant gratification really feel joyful after the first urge is satisfied? This could be the social media likes, the chocolate cup cake or the fancy new gadget you just bought without really needing it. Two, think about the most satisfying moments of your life. It could be winning an award, buying a home or even looking in the mirror after shedding those extra kilos. As you can see, most of the things in the latter category are really not instant but generally satisfying for a much longer time.

2. Will power is an essential component in the path to success

When you look at a bird’s eye view of success, it’s about a number of often undesirable small tasks or habits repeated time after time until compounding take effect. In doing so, there will be enough obstacles and distractions that will prove to be a hindrance. Will power comes handy in neatly skipping across those obstacles to continue on your path towards success.

3. As an adult, you often need to be your own parent

When we are kids we can often get away without exercising much of will power. We can happily watch TV for hours knowing when it gets out of hand, our parents are there to shout at us and get us to do our home work. But, one of the toughest bits about adulthood is parenting yourself. That is where will power will help you to rock adulating.

5 Ways to strengthen your will power

One of the umpteen analogies that I have read when it comes to will power is how it is eerily like a muscle, especially the fact that the more you build on it the more it improves. So, while your genes might have some play, most research seems to indicate that will power is quite a mouldable trait. Here are some well researched and personally experienced ways to improve on your will power.

1. Start with the will

The concept will power has a very important component to it that we often miss – will. If you have not been showing the power over some will, is it really there in the first place or are you pushing it? For instance, one thing I have been staring at on my list is editing the manuscript I have. But, I know there are two things which make me pause before diving in. One, I have gone through it multiple times by now but feel the need to still do the mundane task only to cut out as many words as possible. Two, I am really scared that the self publishing effort on this labour of love could turn out to be a dud, which again is a big dampener to my will to work on this. However, in the last few years I have realised that sometimes you have to do the things that you don’t want to and even those that scare you. Looks like I have both the demons to be targeted in this one task.

2. Do the most procrastinated tasks first

Quite a few years back, I read a book called Eat that frog by Brian Tracy. Tracy writes about how some tasks seem as distasteful as eating a frog (raw, for those who actually do like to eat frogs, otherwise). It is those tasks that need to be tackled first because not only do you start with a reservoir of will power to get that pesky thing off the list, but doing so also gives you confidence to tick off others. It has often worked for me as there have been stretches of time when early mornings have been the most productive for me.

Ensure good quality sleep

This is a personal favourite tactic. For me, good quality adequate sleep makes the world go round. The day I have slept less, I can see a visible drop in my motivation levels. On those days, I would be pretty happy to slouch on the couch and play some mind numbing games. Good sleep and good habits go hand in hand.

4. Make your environment more conducive

Some days after the lockdown came into play, one of my close friends howled to me about how she was going to gain weight in this period. The culprit? Her feelings of apocalypse and the world collapsing around us, as she went maniacal picking up all sorts of options from the chocolate alley on her last grocery round (my narration of this anecdote weighs heavily on the assumption that she does not read all my posts 😉 ). If you are determined to succeed at something, you need to place the right triggers. Do not want to spend too much time on a game, do not assume you can control the time but instead go ahead and uninstall it. Want to save more, automate your savings rather than resolving to spend less. Get smart about your will and you are bound to come out with a stronger power around getting to it.

5. Temptation bundling

This is a term that I am borrowing from one of my favourite authors on the subject, James Clear. He puts the idea of temptation bundling very simply as:

Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need do. 

-James Clear

He starts off with an awe inspiring example of a Dublin-based engineer who re-programmed his Netflix on the laptop in a way that a show would stop mid-way unless he was pedalling the stationery bike beyond a particular speed. It worked for him because Netflix was what he wanted to do while exercising on the stationary bike was something he needed to do.

Personally, when I was writing my novel manuscript was the time that the second season of one of my favourite TV shows Marvellous Mrs. Maisel was released. I promised myself that I got to watch it only on completion of the manuscript. That helped complete the manuscript though finding a publisher for it is a whole new story, altogether!

Getting a handle on our will power is like a daily battle we embark on. The days we are victorious, we seem to inch towards some progress while at other times it’s good to remember tomorrow is another day with a clean, new slate.

Do you have a strong will power? What practices do you adopt to keep exercising it? Let me know in the comments below.  

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