Winning With Willpower!

by Robert McEntee on August 21, 2012

“Every man is his own ancestor, and every man is his own heir. He devises his own future and he inherits his own past.”  Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890) Clergyman and educator

The biggest predictor of one’s success is the extent to which the person makes himself do things that he doesn’t really want to do, and conversely, prevents himself from doing certain things that he craves.  Successful people do the most important thing when it needs to be done, whether they want to or not. 

Willpower is like a muscle and is strengthened over time by regular workouts.  Many scientists view willpower as a finite resource which can be depleted, similar to physical muscles becoming exhausted.  The good news is, willpower depletion is only temporary; it bounces back in due time.

When rest isn’t feasible, recent research shows that you can actually reignite your self-control, simply by thinking about people you know who have lot of self-control.  This is do to the action of “mirror neurons” discussed previously.  This is similar to the way your own life may not seem so busy when comparing to someone who really gets a lot done!

Another option is to give yourself a pick-me-up.  Not an artificial stimulant like a drink, which typically depletes rather than improves willpower, but a natural mood lifter like exercising.  Anything that naturally lifts your spirits should also help restore your self-control strength when it needs a boost.

Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or diet, or even just remembering to sit or stand up straight as often as possible, can strengthen your capacity for self-control.  According to Dr. Sam Wang, Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks, can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity.  People who do such small willpower exercises often find that they have the capacity to tackle larger issues.

How To Set And Achieve A Goal (Arina Nikitina)

Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves (Robert Ringer)

In another study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months, enhanced their strength and overall health.  The regiment seemed to enable them to smoke fewer cigarettes, drink less alcohol, and eat less junk food. They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to foolishly spend money.  It was also reported that they were less likely to procrastinate and they were more punctual.  In other words, they were just generally more disciplined in every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower.  Of course this “snowball effect” can just as easily work in the negative direction.

If you want to build more willpower, start by picking an activity (or avoiding one) that fits with your life and your goals, anything that requires you to override an impulse or repetitive desire, and do it daily.  It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier over time if you persist, because you are increasing your capacity for self-control.  Friends will notice your self improvement, and perhaps trust you more, which can lead to other benefits as well.

I once heard a speaker whom I never would have guessed needed to go through AA and similar counseling, to achieve victory over severe alcohol and drug addiction.  He said the best advice he received was to imagine a room with a wall titled “Sober Person” in front of him and another wall titled “Reformed Alcoholic” behind him.  He was told that he always needed to face the “Sober Person” wall.

A simple paradigm switch can increase your goal achievement and control of bad habits as well, by keeping your mind on what you do rather than don’t, want.  This may explain why people who attempt to quit smoking a little at a time or perhaps through the now popular electronic cigarettes, have such a tough time of it.  Their internal dialogue and self image isn’t clear whether they are a smoker or not.  Once they have accepted that they are a smoke free person, it becomes easier.

The impact of self image became very apparent to famed plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz. In his classic bestseller, Psycho Cybernetics (, he details how often times cosmetic surgery didn’t change attitudes or perceived results, even though the person appeared outwardly beautiful.  It wasn’t until the person’s self image matched the physical result, that the individual experienced real change.

Today we have computers etc to save our written thoughts, but in “the early days” there are many stories of authors who lost their manuscripts representing significant portions of their lives, and had to summon the will-power to start again.  Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the famous author of ‘The History of French Revolution’,  gave his finally completed manuscript to a friend for review.  That night an open window let wind scatter the papers about the room.  When the maid saw it in the morning,  she thought it was trash and used it for kindling in the fireplace! Fortunately Carlyle’s wife helped him to recover from the great loss and start again from scratch, or what was considered a literary masterpiece would not have been published.

Hopefully you won’t have to bounce back from a loss like that, but it is helpful to think of even small areas in which you need to increase your will power and decide now what specific actions you will take. As always I welcome your comments, questions, or stories related to any of the above.

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Johnson October 22, 2013 at 8:31 am

Interesting article! What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve…but only if the heart consents. 🙂

Robert McEntee October 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I like that!

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