The Best Learned Trait We Can Possess: Willpower
Monday July 4, 2016

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“Ultimately, self-control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.” —Willpower: Recovering the Greatest Human Strength 

~The Simple Sophisticate, episode #110

Much like a tank of gas, when we wake up each morning (depending upon how well we have slept), our minds will contain a finite amount of willpower that will gradually be reduced, but never increased until we fuel it up again with rest and/or the proper food. Have you ever wondered why you are more quick to be annoyed or less able to hold your tongue at the end of the work day versus at the beginning of the day? Most likely, it is because your willpower has been reduced or weakened.

Willpower and self-control, are they the same thing? Yes, but what I find to be a good reminder in self-control, is that we hold the power. We can exercise this muscle which makes it easier to use it less often. What? How does that work?

Renowned and highly regarded social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister who co-authored the best-selling book Willpower: Recovering the Greatest Human Strength, discovered an unexpected paradox: People with more self-control don’t use it as often. In 2013 I wrote a post sharing the five primary benefits of possessing self-control. Based on Baumeister’s research, it is easier to have self-control when we keep our fuel levels of willpower as high as possible throughout the day. In other words, no unnecessary taxing or usages of fuel.

When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict ‘positive outcomes’ in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control.” 

So how can we preserve as much willpower as possible throughout each of our days?

  1. Be a planner. Stop procrastinating.
  2. Play offense instead of defense. Preventative care and maintenance with your health, your home repairs, your beauty routines, your savings, etc.
  3. Know your individual language. Become acutely in tune with yourself in order to recognize when you are either becoming more frustrated than normal, losing control of your impulses (eating, spending, sharing, etc.). And pull back before your depletion goes too far.
  4. Maximize “low demand” time in your life. Find the times during the year, during the month, during the day when you have fewer demands, and then use this time to cultivate positive habits that put you on the offensive and help you reduce stress.
  5. Make to-do lists. Become a planner in some capacity. Set goals and be clear about why you want to pursue them. Don’t set too many goals (3-5 depending upon the time period), and then make mini goals and discover the small steps it will take to get there. Ultimately, your daily to-do list will in some way be tied to your goals (grocery shop = improving your health; scheduling your seasonal facial = finding balance in your life and caring for yourself)
  6. Get a full, rested night’s sleep each and every day.
  7. Take care of your health.
  8. Monitor yourself.  Let your jeans tell you to start limiting the desserts more often. Write down what you’ve done when it comes to progressing or regressing regarding your goals. Seeing it on paper or on a screen often catches us before things get out of hand, thus reducing excessive stress down the road.
  9. Never say never. Don’t eliminate entirely all bread, but instead, allow yourself to have bread only if it’s fresh from an artisanal oven or only once a week. Set clear and simple parameters. Have the decision made ahead of time.
  10. One option or nothing. If you’re going shopping, only spend the amount of cash you have in your wallet and do not allow credit cards or debit cards to be an option. Make the decision simple.
  11. Include rewards. Building up your willpower/self-control will take time, so reward yourself for the progress you make along the way. If you adhered to the first week of your meditation schedule, reward yourself with a new song to meditate to downloaded from iTunes. The reward need not cost much or anything at all, but give yourself the motivation to keep going until the habit becomes ingrained.
  12. Use your self-control to form daily habits that are beneficial. By doing so, you expend less energy in the long run.

The benefits of having strong willpower, as the quote at the top states generally, is the ability to create positive outcomes in our lives.

1. Improves our social relationships

When we can successfully monitor our impulses, we are less likely to say or do something without first considering the outcome and how others would feel or what might be gained or lost.

2. Compassion and altruistic nature increases

Because you are thinking about others while you are also experiencing your own pain or frustration, you are taking into consideration the pain and frustration that may be caused should you act on your impulse. Therefore, your perspective and understanding of others and the broader world expands which leads me to #3.

3. Attraction builds

A byproduct of exhibiting self-control is that we recognize and engage with others. And when we engage with others, we are showing them we are thinking of them. And one of the most basic human needs is to feel included, recognized and heard. Someone who exhibits willpower is better able to exude this energy because they are stepping outside of themselves and considering those around them.

4. Good health

A funny discovery when it came to willpower is that dieting doesn’t necessarily become easier with willpower. Why? Well, it takes willpower to not eat certain foods and temptation, but in order to have willpower, we must eat.

The good news found beneath this frustrating fact is that “diets” as coined by the American culture are not the solution. What is the solution is to understand food is required for good health without deprivation, and to do so moderately and by making wise decisions. In other words to go back up to the list of ways to increase your fuel levels, never say never. Don’t deprive yourself. Your body knows what it needs if you know the language of your body. If you don’t, this will take time, but you can become fluent in it. And when you do, you will know that when you are tired, tossing back another cup of coffee isn’t the answer. Rather a good night’s sleep is and firm boundaries need to be put down.

Part of the reason many of us reach for sugar when we need a high is (1) it’s readily available in our culture in pre-processed bags and goodies, etc., but (2) it appears to works (temporarily)! The key is to reach for the right type of food, because we clearly recognize we need fuel. Instead reach for protein which will last far longer and be healthier in the long run. And as for sugar, reach for natural sugars (click here to discover how to feed your body well). (Also, click here to discover how to lose those last 10 pounds.)

5. Strong willpower in one arena helps in the next arena

Every little practice of willpower helps. If you have a strong habit of turning down pop/soda, that ability (that strength) is applicable to be used (perhaps without you knowing it) when you attempt to strengthen your willpower in another area that will improve your life. Don’t be afraid to start small as it will be easier to establish small, simple habits. Once the habit has been formed, you don’t have to think about it any more and then you can apply that energy to the next habit you would like to add to your life.

6. Control of emotions

Now, don’t misunderstand, this is not about suppressing emotions, no, no, no. In fact, when you suppress your emotions you are using willpower, depleting your finite supply which makes you weaker when other decisions are presented. So, no, don’t suppress your emotions as that would absolutely be unhelpful. Instead we need to be aware of how we are feeling and knowing how to successfully address our emotions or communicate about them with others in such a way that is helpful, not hurtful.

7. Control of thoughts

We’ve talked here on TSLL and on the podcast endlessly about the power of mastering our minds, but doing so is hard when our willpower level is depleted. Again the key is to reduce our taxing of it so that we can recognize helpful or hurtful thoughts and shift gears onto more productive and uplifting images and ideas.

8. Improved performance

Whether at work or at home, when we are able to focus, we are better able to manage our time, manage or ignore distractions and think clearly about how to successfully do what needs to be done. Most importantly, we are able to finish what we set out to do. Willpower enables us to focus, enables us to complete, and complete well, the task at hand.

Is it any wonder that those with great amounts of self-control, i.e. willpower, live successful and contented lives. While we can always and should always pursue to increase our knowledge, our IQ is basically the same as when we were a child. We cannot radically change our intelligence, but we can radically change our willpower (which is a learned skill), and if we eliminate all of the unnecessary stressors, temptations, etc., we reduce the need to use it as often so that we can think freely and well to make the most of each and everyday. Whether we are pursuing a goal or strengthening relationships, willpower is the key.

~Shop all of the books mentioned, recommended and reviewed in TSLL Shop for Bookslisted chronologically beginning with the most recent.


~9 Ways to Bring More Luck into Your Life

~10 Truths of Successful People

~11 Tips to Cultivate Good Habits

Petit Plaisir

~Carbonara Crostini – click here for the recipe




Image: source | The Simply Luxurious Life

3 thoughts on “The Best Learned Trait We Can Possess: Willpower

  1. This is an excellent topic, and you present it very well. Some people, especially in behavioral finance, suggest looking to Ulysses, who wanted to hear the Sirens’ song as without crashing as he navigated Scylla and Charybdis. He had his men tie him to the bow of the ship and told them to plug their own ears. The lesson is that when you are tempted by a Siren’s song–procrastinating, overspending, overeating, not saving, not exercising–you need rules in place to tie you and keep you from crashing. So rather than count on your willpower to say no to dessert or to get out and run or to put away $x every month, you have rules: dessert on weekends only (so it’s decided in advance), running with a friend who’s waiting for you to show up, automatic deductions. You still need willpower and the points you made here, but the rules give more oomph to your willpower.

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