Ever helped a friend move? At the end of the day your muscles are so tired you couldn’t carry anything more even if you wanted to. You might say to yourself, “I should be hitting the gym more often, I would be less tired”. For your willpower, it’s just the same: after flexing your willpower muscle too much you become exhausted and can’t control yourself anymore. And if you hit the willpower gym, you could improve the strength of your willpower muscle.
So why does overusing your willpower cause you to run out of it?
Because every successful attempt to exert self-control draws from the same limited source. This means that resisting a temptation will not only weaken your ability to avoid other temptations, but also prompt procrastination and other willpower failures. And this willpower exhaustion happens all the time.
This is because many daily tasks you would not think of as willpower challenges – having to commute, sit through a boring meeting or choose between 20 brands of shampoo – all draw from our limited daily willpower reserve.
But although we are constantly draining our willpower, we can do our best to maintain it at a high level by keeping our blood sugar steady and our energy levels high.
Low-glycemic foods such as nuts, cereals, fruits, vegetables and high-fiber grains all contribute to resourcing our willpower. But there is another way of improving our willpower – by training the willpower muscle.
Just as it’s possible to train your arm muscle through weight lifting, it’s possible to train your willpower muscle with willpower challenges. By performing small but regular willpower challenges you can gradually improve your self control.
Hardly a week passes without news about the moral failures of upstanding citizens – politicians, athletes or religious leaders who have done something wrong. Why do these supposedly virtuous people make such large mistakes?
Actually, thinking that you are “virtuous” lowers your self-awareness and discipline. This is because when we feel we are being virtuous enough, we see less need to control ourselves.
And this is exactly what happened in the experiment. After the students proved to themselves that they were not sexist by rejecting a statement, they then paid less attention to their actual behavior in the hiring task. However, this is counter-productive: giving yourself a reward which undermines your long-term goal is not a promising strategy for success.
So don’t allow your successes to loosen your self-discipline. Otherwise you might find yourself nullifying your progress by allowing your self-indulgent behavior. Instead, stick to a rule which serves your goal, but is not so challenging that you can’t stick to it every single day without failure.
Why do we often feel bad and guilty after satisfying our immediate desires, like buying a new sweater we don’t need, or spending a lazy evening in front of the TV? And why do we do it again and again, despite knowing better?
Because your brain’s reward system is not always your friend – and sometimes it leads you in the wrong direction.
So what exactly happens in the brain when you crave something? First you see or smell something you desire – and just that is enough to activate the reward system in the brain.
The system releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine which activates the areas of the brain responsible for attention, motivation and action. These dopamine releases can be triggered by anything we have associated with feeling good: a 70-percent-off sale sign at a mall, the smell of a rib-eye steak (or a vegan burger), or an attractive face smiling at you.
And when this dopamine is released, the object that pulled the trigger immediately becomes very desirable – even if it’s against our long-term interest, like unhealthy food, internet binges, binge drinking or one night stands. This is why we engage in activities that seem to be irresistible at first glance, but afterward leave us feeling guilty and dissatisfied.
Our prehistoric ancestors, however, were not troubled by this reward mechanism. In fact, being attracted to sweet things was to their advantage, as sweet fruit and berries were a crucial part of their diet. Our ancestors were also more free to pursue sexual impulses without modern-day societal constraints.
But even though this impulsive mechanism isn’t as useful in our day and age, it’s still there, and we have to make sure it doesn’t push us toward unhealthy or unwise choices.
So what can you do? You can actually make this weakness your strength by combining unpleasant tasks with something that gets your dopamine firing. For example, bring your boring paperwork to your favorite café and finish it over a delicious cup of hot chocolate.
Stress is a common source of unhappiness. It can be caused by professional or personal worries, but also by external events, like bad news in the media.
Stress is one of the biggest threats to your willpower because it induces dreaded cravings. How?
Stress makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to make yourself feel better. Unfortunately sometimes the easiest way to feel better is by doing the very thing you’ll later feel bad about.
So how can you overcome this? When you feel stressed, don’t give in to immediate cravings. Instead try out stress-relief strategies that have a more sustainable effect, like exercise or meditation. These activities might involve more effort, but will leave you with a feeling of satisfaction, not guilt.
But don’t make unrealistic resolutions to counter stress – you’re more likely to give up early.
When people reach a low point in their lives, like facing an enormous mortgage, they often decide to drastically change their life. However, this can backfire, for the higher we set our goal, the more difficult it is to stay on track. Failure to meet our expectations then leads us to frustration, guilt and self-doubt, and soon we typically abandon our efforts altogether.
To avoid this fate, remember: when you fail to achieve your goals, don’t despair. Just forgive yourself and try again.
Do you ever overcommit yourself to responsibilities and later find yourself overwhelmed?
Do you sometimes regret your past choices when confronted with their actual costs?
Both phenomena are caused by our inability to imagine the future clearly – and especially to imagine our future selves.
We don’t see our future selves as ourselves, but as distant, different people. Our brain perceives them as strangers due to our inability to observe their thoughts and feelings.
This can lead to us putting off tasks, hoping that our future-self will have more willpower to deal with them – or even worse, racking up debt and hoping our future selves will be able to pay.
These hopes lead nowhere because your future-self is not different from your present self, and will also struggle when facing challenges, be it mustering the willpower to do an unpleasant task or balancing the budget.
So what can we do? A good method for becoming more familiar with your future-self is visualization: imagine your future-self thinking back on the decisions you are making today and their consequences. Try it out!
Check out my related post: How to make whining stop?