Rediscovering Willpower (what you need to know about the greatest human strength)

“A life without willpower is a life frozen in place, stamped with the permanence of underachievement and discontent.” ~KW

Willpower has been finding its way back into respectable circles these days.

Until recently (the last couple decades), willpower seemed like the unwanted stepchild of the character family. People ranked it dead last on surveys of virtues they wanted to acquire and academics largely ignored it, associating it with puritanical repression.

And so they rarely conducted studies on it and seldom wrote about it in professional journals, unless critically (even while using it to become the very people able to write articles for professional journals).

Still, psychologists and therapists looked at self-control, at best, with suspicion; at worst, as a throwback to Victorian self-denial, the cause of neuroses and rigid personality types and retentive disorders everywhere.

But that’s been changing of late.

Caging Willpower?

As studies on the subject have proliferated over the last couple decades, we’ve come to know a lot more than the Victorians knew about self-control.

The truth is that when we look into the lives of very successful people, we find gobs of the stuff. And when we study the lives of happy people, we find it effectively oozing from their pores as they consistently choose attitudes and behaviors that reflect their highest selves.

But it’s an unresolved controversy nonetheless, not because researchers have produced conflicting results, but because popular culture hasn’t caught up with the new research and so still views willpower with a certain amount of distrust and disdain, the virtue most likely to be voted a bore.

So, is the exercise of willpower, self-control and self-denial (and other synonyms for essentially the same thing) the self-imposed equivalent of caging your true self? Are we slapping an emotional ball and chain around the ankles of freedom, liberty and fun, putting our authentic inner being behind bars?

It turns out that no, we’re not, actually.

The Freedom of Self-Control

Willpower, it turns out, is not a self-imposed prison sentence at all. It actually frees us from having to do battle with conflicting thoughts, emotions and inclinations on a moment to moment basis. By choosing one path to travel, we’re exercising the will to stay off other contradictory paths that would divert us from the one we’ve chosen.

Willpower is the mortar that holds the bricks of priority and competing values and character in place. It is the control panel to success and the steering wheel to a meaningful life. It is the substance goals and habits and life trajectories are made of.

We all have dreams of producing or becoming or creating things in our lives that are not yet there. We want to lose weight or overcome a self-defeating habit or start a new good one or build a business or write or play or sing better. But how? We all know that reaching our goals or living our dreams works best when we’re focused.

If, for instance, you regularly sit at the piano with a slice of cheesecake on your lap, a fork in one hand, and the remote control in the other, you’re just not going to get very far down the road of becoming a concert pianist.

It doesn’t matter how hard you dream of it or visualize it or wish or demand it. Life only responds to action. And action requires willpower. Willpower opens doors and makes paths possible and frees us to become what we most want to become by elevating that above all the other demands competing for our time, attention and resources.

It’s also necessary to keep us from focusing too much time and energy on the pursuit of our dreams to the exclusion of other high priorities, like family and friends.

Competing Values

We are constantly bombarded with competing desires:

  • I want to be faithful to my wife and that woman over there looks really hot in that tight dress.
  • I want to be healthy and that ice cream is calling my name.
  • I want to take a walk with my family and my favorite TV show is on right now.
  • I want to write this post and I haven’t checked my email in the last 30 seconds.
  • I want to get to work on time but the pillow won’t let me up!

Both call us. Both tempt and tantalize. But one is the undermining factor of the other. That is the moment willpower and self-control become vital.

Willpower: Secrets #1

And here’s guarded secret about willpower: It gets depleted with use. But it’s also strengthened.

In the Short-Run:
That is, in the short-run, exercising willpower makes it difficult to exercise willpower. Studies have found that the employment of self-control depletes reserves of glucose in the blood stream. And it turns out that the use of willpower requires a healthy amount of glucose in the blood stream.

I’m guessing you can relate to this all-too-familiar scenario: You’re sitting beside a plate of cookies (or a pie or bag of potato chips), trying to resist. As the minutes fall away, so does your willpower and you give in to the constant tug and eat a cookie … then two … and soon enough, the plate is left with only crumbs to remind you of your failed resistance.

But what happened? If I was strong in the first 3 minutes, why would the next three or the three after that be any different? The problem is that willpower gets depleted as it’s used, making it increasingly difficult to withstand temptation when facing it down. And the more it’s depleted, the more difficult resistance is.

In the Long-Run:
But it is also true that regularly taking our willpower to the gym makes it stronger in the long-run. So if your great challenge has been trying to stay off inappropriate websites at night, don’t resist the Chocolate Delight before going online. The glucose-sucking use of self-denial will make it that much harder to resist the allure of online trysts with airbrushed beauties.

But at the same time, resisting untoward urges makes future resistance easier, being able to resist for longer periods of time.

Willpower: Secret #2

But here’s the key to the successful use of willpower: Those with the most don’t exercise it much at the edge of the abyss. They don’t have to. They stay far from the edge.

It turns out that those people who we identify as the most self-controlled exercise their willpower long before they need much of it.

They are more likely to keep their computers in the living room or off at night. They don’t become best buds with the hot blonde at the office. They keep the potato chips and Ding Dongs on the shelves at the supermarket so they seldom have to do battle with them in the cupboard at home. They don’t have a TV in the living room, another in the dining room, one in each bedroom and one more in the study.

In other words, they limit their temptations and distractions so the battles they wage with their wills are seldom ever major wars. They are more like small skirmishes, much more easily won.

It would be foolish to arm an enemy before a confrontation. And yet we arm our weaknesses all the time before epic showdowns on frequently visited battlefields as we wage the same war over and over again.

It’s still foolish.

David’s Dilemma

The life of David, King of Judah, and later of Israel, is instructive. David was a good and godly king. And yet one day while on his rooftop looking over his Kingdom, he spotted a bathing beauty (literally). The name of the beauty was Bathsheba. And on this day, she was naked, bathing on her rooftop when David saw her.

Had David known what we now know about willpower back then, he may have fled the scene, worried that his self-control would weaken as he fought the urge to take another man’s wife, eating up his glucose, leaving him increasingly vulnerable to his sexual desires.

Instead, he hesitated. I can imagine an internal struggle, knowing he should turn and go but wanting to stay and watch. Lust grew. Resistance weakened. Perhaps in those depleted moments, plans were laid for what followed. An adulterous affair, a pregnancy and a murder later, and David was no longer the man he had so recently been.

By tempting temptation, David made it increasingly difficult to resist it.

Perhaps he would have done what another Biblical figure did if he knew the lessons we’ve learned in study after study. When the Pharaoh’s wife threw herself at Daniel, he didn’t ask for her number or excuse just a little harmless flirting or imagine what the queen looked like naked. He simply took off running long before body parts were uncovered and glucose levels depleted and willpower weakened.

Two Men, Willpower and the Obvious

There’s a story of two men who longed to be happy, healthy and successful.

One prided himself at how amazingly close he could live his life at the edge. He drank until tipsy, but never sloshed. He flirted, but never cheated. Looked but didn’t touch. Snacked, but never gorged. Yelled, but never hit.

The other prided himself at how far he stayed away from the edge.

Who do you think had the happier marriage? Earned the higher income, having been trusted with the greater set of responsibilities? And lived a healthier lifestyle?

This is the power in will-power. It also happens to be the secret to happiness, health and a meaningful life of accomplishment.

Final Words

“Personal growth is the product of the will forged in the heat of effort and commitment.” ~KW

When self-control is exercised long before the will weakens, while still at the bottom of the mountain, willpower is at its most helpful. But when depleted and weakened and at the height of temptation, the best of us may be facing the tyranny of David’s Dilemma.

Your willpower will serve you and your goals best when used early and often. So start now. Put down the cookie and peel an orange.


Buy the book that inspired this post (and it’s title): Willpower:Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

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