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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Willpower Has Been Overrated, This Is What You Need Instead To Succeed

Willpower Has Been Overrated, This Is What You Need Instead To Succeed

Willpower can be described as the ability to control or reject desires to indulge in harmful and useless habits. It also allows people to arrive at decisions and then follow them through with perseverance until success has been achieved. Additionally, willpower can help us delay gratification, which as humans, we’re hard-wired to want instantly.

To give you a concrete example of willpower, just think of school. Students need willpower to self-control themselves to maintain attention in class, and to avoid breaking school rules in order to be seen as a good student.

    In our modern age, willpower has become known as an important element in success. By has it always been this way?

    How We Came to Believe That Willpower Leads to Success

      In ancient times we didn’t need willpower, instead, we followed our natural instincts to survive.

      However, as civilization evolved, humans wanted to put things in order. We started to create rules for people to follow. And only by following these rules could someone get what they want, and survive in a modern society. Because of these rules, we started to make self-discipline a virtue.

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      In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a marshmallow experiment proved willpower was the key to success.[1] The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. The study was simple but revealing. It tested children on a choice between the following rewards:

      1. Immediately being able to eat a marshmallow.
      2. Waiting 20 minutes and then being able to eat two marshmallows.

      The results of the study were fascinating. Children who were able to wait for the double reward, typically fared better in later life than those children who took the instant gratification route.

      Because of this famous study, more emphasis began to be put on the benefits of strengthening willpower.

      Nowadays, it’s fair to say that willpower controls a lot of what we do – as we see it as something critical to reaching goals and achieving things. And it’s not just about I want power, but also about I will, and I won’t.[2]

      Willpower training has also become big business. There’s countless workshops, online seminars as well as best-selling books such as Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength and The Willpower Instinct.

      Try searching for “willpower boost” on Google, and you’ll find thousands of results for articles that purport to show you the ways to do it.

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      The Limited Power of Willpower

        However, most people’s willpower remains weak. Some of the reasons for this are:

        • Emotions – which can affect our motivation levels.
        • Our physical condition – are you getting enough sleep? (For example.)
        • Previous failures – repeating these in our minds kills our willpower.[3]

        On top of the above issues, you may have noticed that even when you have an abundance of willpower, it has its limits. Every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. For instance, if you resist eating a tasty piece of chocolate cake offered to you, then you’ve had to use emotional and mental power.

        Willpower is similar to a muscle. If we overuse it, we get tired. In other words, willpower is a limited resource.[4]

        How to Succeed with Limited Willpower

        Once you realize that willpower has its limits, then the key thing to know is that you must follow a system to reach your goals and dreams. Put systems first, and willpower second.

        Willpower is close to useless, if you do not allow it to work alongside a personal success system.

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        What is this system that I refer to? It’s a system that creates the right conditions in your mind and environment that helps make your success a surefire outcome. With this type of system in place, willpower will simply be an extra bonus in helping you to reach success. But to be clear, with the right system, even if your willpower fails, you’ll still keep on the road to success and achievement. These are the essential steps to build your own success system:

              1. Create an environment that is conducive to success

              Think for a moment about willpower. On its own, it doesn’t place any emphasis on changing your environment, instead, it puts its focus on overcoming your environment. It’s no wonder then, when the limited willpower begins to fail, people succumb to environmental influences – despite their best efforts to resist.

              As human beings, we are consciously and unconsciously influenced by what’s around us. These could be the news we read, the stories our friends tell us, and even the influence our home has on us.

              The secret is to, where possible, create an environment that helps (not hinders) the reaching of your goals. For example, if you want to spot binge eating snacks, give away all your snacks to others, and make sure you can’t reach any kind of snacks at your workplace or home.

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              Your environment can also be used to directly support your goals. For instance, if you want to be a professional artist, surround yourself with professional artists.

              2. Know what makes you happy

              By knowing what makes you happy, you’ll also reveal what motivates you. This is important.

              Take a look around at others, or delve into your past, and you will find that willpower falters when people encounter failure or come across negative events. This clearly demonstrates that willpower is affected by external factors, thus making it unreliable.

              Knowing what makes you happy is the perfect way to stay motivated to reach your goals – even when your willpower crumbles. This can be through rewarding yourself by watching a great movie (once you’ve achieved a goal milestone), or by simply enjoying the inner bliss you receive when walking on the pathway that keeps you happy, motivated and successful.

              Replace Your Old Beliefs – and Find New Success

              Willpower is not the be all and end all we’ve been taught to believe. While it’s certainly a component of success, it’s nowhere near as important as all the self-help gurus claim.

              As I’ve discussed above, having a system and a goal, are much more powerful factors in success than willpower.

              So, now you know the truth about success, take the steps I’ve suggested, and begin achieving more than you ever thought possible. And if you need any further motivation to help you on your way, check out the Lifehack article Make Good Habits Stick Easily With Productive—the Habit Tracker.

              Featured photo credit: Vecteezy via vecteezy.com

              Reference

              More by this author

              Leon Ho

              Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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              Last Updated on January 21, 2021

              10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

              10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

              “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi

              “Willpower is essential to the accomplishment of anything worthwhile.” – Brian Tracy

              “Just do it.” – Nike

              The most important and satisfying things in life usually aren’t the easiest ones.

              The good news: In today’s hyper-connected world, we have access to all the information we could want to help us achieve our future goals. We know what foods will make us healthier (would kale or quinoa be as popular without the internet and Dr. Oz? I think not). We can also estimate for ourselves the benefits of starting retirement savings early – and the implications for the lifestyles of our future selves (that boat at 65 means fewer vacations in your 20’s).

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              We almost always know what we should do thanks to endless knowledge at our fingertips. But actually doing it is an entirely different kind of challenge. Most of us can relate to that feeling of inertia at the start of a big project, or the struggle to consistently make good, long-term choices for our health, or saving for the future. This mental tug-of-war we experience has evolutionary roots. While knowing this might bring comfort, it doesn’t help solve the problem at hand:

              How can we flex our willpower to become better, faster, smarter, and stronger?

              The bad news: you can’t Google your way out of this one.

              Or can you? A fascinating body of research (much of which you can turn up online through popular press and academic articles) sheds light on how to hack your willpower for better, easier results in all areas of your life. The Willpower Instinct, a great book by Stanford prof Kelly McGonigal, provides a deep dive into these and more topics for anyone keenly interested.

              Here’s the short version: we can make the most of our willpower through two types of hacks. First, there are ways to turbo boost your willpower. Second, there are ways to hack the system so you make the best use of whatever (sometimes infinitely modest) willpower you have.

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              The following 10 tips draw on both of these toolkits.

              1. Slow the heck down.

              Most regrettable decisions (the splurge at the mall, the procrastination on the project, the snacks in the break room) happen when one part of our brain effectively hijacks the other. We go into automatic pilot (and unfortunately the pilot in question has a penchant for shoes, Facebook and cookies!). Researchers suggest that we can override this system by charging up the other. That is, slow down and focus on the moment at hand. Think about your breathing. Bring yourself back to this moment in time, feel the compulsion but don’t act on it yet. Try telling yourself, “If this feeling is still just as uncomfortable in 10 minutes, I’ll act on it.” Take a little time to be mindful – then make your decision.

              2. Dream of ‘done.’

              Imagine yourself handing in the big project, soaking up the appreciation from your colleagues or boss. Or crossing the finish line for the half-marathon you’ve always wanted to run. The rush, the aliveness, the wind on your face, the medal …

              That’s a lot more fun and motivating to think about than how much work it is to get out of bed for your long, Sunday morning run!

              Re-orient your brain by summoning more motivating feelings than just “not running this morning is more enjoyable than running this morning.” If your goals are meaningful, this will help.

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              3. Make your toughest choices first.

              Scientists have found that willpower is like a full bathtub that’s drained throughout the day. So, why not start your toughest challenges when you have a full reserve? Get that project started or fit that workout in before you even check your email or have breakfast. Bonus: the high you’ll get from crossing off your hardest ‘to-do’ will help you sail through the rest of your day.

              4. Progress = commitment, not a license to backslide.

              A lot of times people will ‘cheat’ right after taking positive steps towards their goals. (A common version of this trap is, “I worked out three days in a row, so I deserve this cookie.”) Most of us can relate to this thinking – but it’s totally irrational! We’ll often trick ourselves into setbacks because we think we deserve them, even if we don’t really want them and deep down we know they’ll work against us in the long-run.

              How can you counteract this effect? Research finds that if you use your positive streak to recommit (“If I worked out three days this week, I must be really committed to my health and fitness goal!”) rather than an excuse for wiggle room, we don’t take the same cheat options. Cool, right?

              5. Meditate.

              Meditation is an expressway to better willpower. Bringing your attention to your breathing for 15 minutes, or even five, flexes your willpower muscles by applying discipline to your thinking. It does this by working two mental ‘muscle groups’: first, the set of muscles that notice when your attention is drifting, and second, the set of muscles that bring you back to your task at hand. Over time, even small amounts of meditation will help you build the discipline to easily do what was once hard – like pushing through a long stretch at work.

              6. Set mini-goals.

              Which seems more doable: committing to three 20 minute runs this week or a half-marathon? Mini-goals are brilliant because they’re easier to achieve and boost your commitment to continuing. When we size them up, we see them as achievable rather than daunting. Each time you succeed at one, it boosts your sense of efficacy and personal integrity: not only are you capable of doing what you set out to do, but you followed through on it. Nice.

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              The beauty of mini-goals is that over time, mini-goals – and the momentum you’ve built by doing them – can quickly turn into super-goals. So that half marathon might be more likely to happen, and sooner and more easily than you think!

              7. Eat.

              Low blood sugar decreases your ability to make tough decisions. If you’re running on empty physically, you’ll also be running on empty mentally. (Yes, this one’s somewhat ironic if your goal involves changing food patterns – but even so, letting your blood sugar drop too far will only sabotage you over time.)

              8. Sleep.

              Research shows people who don’t get enough sleep have a tough time exercising their willpower. Sleep is critical for a healthy brain – along with just about everything else. So to optimize your willpower muscle, make sure you’re catching your zzz’s.

              9. Nix the self-sabotage.

              Making yourself feel bad hurts, rather than helps, your willpower efforts. Researchers have found that compassion is a far better strategy than tough love – telling yourself “It’s OK, everyone has setbacks sometimes,” will help you bounce back more quickly than negative self-talk.

              10. Take the first hard step.

              As a new behavior becomes a habit, it is more natural. You have to use less and less willpower to ‘make it so.’ When you’re starting a new pattern that feels hard, remind yourself that the first steps are truly the hardest. It will probably never feel harder than it does in those first few choices. In the case of repeated behaviors, like exercise or saving money, it takes weeks for new habits to take hold. By that point, the habit will be so ingrained, you’d have to try hard not to do it.

              Featured photo credit: Kym Ellis via unsplash.com

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