Where there’s a will, there’s a way–but what if there’s no will left in you? Or what if you had lots of it at the start, but barely have anything left now?
Humanity has been both enamoured with and tortured by the strength of his willpower for millennia. We know that anything worth having won’t come easy; any worthwhile success necessitates the exercise of good self-discipline in foregoing current wants for the promise of the future. Knowing this, though, hasn’t made practicing it any easier over the ages.
Yet it remains the cornerstone of progress and growth. Learning how to take control of your life—your decisions, your thoughts, your body, and your sense of self— is integral in the pursuit of mastering self-control.
That requires, though, that you understand the mechanics of willpower in the first place. Why does self-control seem to come so naturally for some and not others? What gives the most self-disciplined amongst us the ability to consistently forego current wants for the promise of a brighter future, and why do ill-disciplined people struggle to do the same thing?
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Does willpower function like a muscle that gets overstretched when it’s strained too much and too often? Or is it more like an infinitely self-replenishing well within each of us that we can draw on at any time?
For decades, the prevailing understanding, based on psychological research at the time, was based on the theory of ego depletion. It held that self-discipline is a finite resource; we can only use so much of it before we run out and have to refuel.
From this perspective, it explains why things like new years’ resolutions are so hard to keep. When you run out of willpower, maintaining a positive behavioural change in the long-term is more challenging than attaining it in the present.
In recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists have published work disputing this theory. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, for example, found that whether or not you run out of self-control depends on how you perceive willpower. In other words, if you believe that you only have a certain amount of willpower, you’ll run out of steam after a while. Conversely, if you don’t see it this way, you’ll exercise better self-control.
As it turns out, in the pursuit of your goals, how you conceive of self-discipline matters more than the amount of it you objectively have. Whether you want to make a habit of running 6km thrice a week or stop using your phone so much and read more books instead, the magic all happens in your head.
The thing about willpower, though, is that it’s primarily fuelled by a commitment to delayed gratification. For example, instead of going out on a Saturday night, you choose to stay home and work on your side hustle because you know it will pay off more in the long term.
However, the problem facing most of us is that we’re much more used to instant gratification. Because of the wonders of one-click shopping and Googling, among others, our minds are much more accustomed to receiving immediate rewards when we have a particular craving. Want lunch, but it’s too hot outside to go out? Order in. Bored to bits at home? Playstation and Netflix will fix that.
In other words, we consistently choose current enjoyment over future benefits. It even applies to interpersonal conflict at well.
Say you have a passive-aggressive co-worker who’s been getting on your nerves a lot lately. At some point, you decide enough is enough. Choosing instant gratification here means indulging your irritation, becoming aggressive and highly confrontational. You may even retaliate in equal measure.
Conversely, adhering to delayed gratification means pursuing a more constructive approach to the situation, one that confronts the problem without jeopardising the working relationship between the two of you.
To compound the situation, people so often think that self-discipline and enjoyment can’t go hand in hand. This, however, works against us. The human brain is wired to seek continual pleasure in all of life’s pursuits. That’s why bad habits are so easy to pick up and so hard to drop; most of the time, switching to good habits doesn’t seem enjoyable.
Research has shown that people who are more self-disciplined don’t simply have more willpower than others. Rather, they tend not to encounter as many temptations as others because they mostly enjoy exercising self-control. As it turns out, self-discipline becomes much easier when you throw enjoyment into the mix.