How To Increase Your Willpower

Albert Einstein famously said that genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work. That’s probably true, but I’ve noticed something else about hard work: first of all, it’s not easy to do. Secondly, most people try to avoid hard work at all cost, even the talented ones.

The thing about doing difficult things is that you need a ton of willpower to do them. We all tell ourselves we should start eating healthy tomorrow, or work out, or build ourselves a new website, or learn that new software or understand what all those words on our 401k mean. But most of us don’t actually do all those things, because they require so much willpower.

Over the years I’ve noticed that the people around me that actually get things done are simply the ones who manage to master enough willpower to do them. I’ve noticed that about myself too – some things that seem to me relatively simple, like getting up early or reading books, are really not that easy for others.

This realization made me wonder whether willpower is something you’re born with – meaning some people are just luckier than others – or is it a muscle you can develop and improve. I also realized that it doesn’t matter how hard people are trying to be better designers, if they don’t have enough willpower, they will never be able to achieve their dreams.

Then I did my favorite thing – I read a book about it, called The Willpower Instinct. It was super interesting and I’d like to share with you a few specific ideas from it that might help you with your own willpower challenges, whether they are about design, smoking or food.

Let’s begin with the question that I had on my mind: whether willpower is something you’re born with or can work on. The answer, amazingly, is both. Yes, some people have it naturally easier to do difficult things. But they’re not perfect either and they find other things difficult. We can all increase our abilities significantly if we understand what affects our willpower.

According to the book, which is filled with scientific studies on the subject, willpower is a sort of reservoir in our brain. Sometimes it’s empty, and then we ‘sin’: we eat junk food, buy crap we don’t need to waste time instead of working on what we should be working on. And sometimes the reservoir is full and then we succeed in being ‘strong’ and not get tempted – then we get around to doing what we said we should do. We do hard work, invest in ourselves and in our long-term goals.

Here are some tips to increase your willpower:

Our willpower is affected by our physical state

And that means three things:

  1. You need to sleep well.
  2. You need to eat well.
  3. You need to exercise.

If you’re not getting 6-7 hours of sleep a night, know that your willpower is going to be lower than it can be. Good sleep was always important to me and I’ve always hated all-nighters in school and in work, so I’m happy to learn that now science is backing up that it’s bad for you. If you don’t eat enough, skip meals or only eat non-nutritious junk, your willpower will be lowered. It’s true that there’s a bit of a loop here – you need willpower to eat well, and you need to eat well to have willpower – but that’s how it works. As for exercise, yes, it affects your willpower too. But you’ll surely be happy to know that you don’t have to go to the gym every day. Even an activity like walking for five minutes can help fill up your willpower reservoir.

Willpower is contagious

Studies show that willpower behaves like an epidemic: it can be contagious. Those researches show, for instance, that if you’re around obese people often, you’re in a higher risk group to become obese yourself.

Remember when we were children and mom used to say “so what if everyone’s doing it? If everyone jumped off the roof would you do it too?” Of course we’re taught to be individuals and we like to believe that we make rational decisions by ourselves, but studies show that’s really not how it works. In fact, if everyone did jump off the roof, you would probably join them.

If all the people in your office stuff their faces with cake and candy every day, there’s a good chance you’re eating them too. On the other hand, if they’re all health freaks, making salads every day, you might ‘catch’ it too.

I know that to be true from my own experience. When I was working for and wanted to develop an app in my free time, the work I was doing with another person who had already done it himself motivated me and filled me with willpower. It showed me that it was a possible thing to do, even though it’s so hard to get up earlier each morning or work on weekends.

If you’re aware of your willpower, you’ll have more of it

I recently read three books about different topics (marriage, child rearing and willpower) and all three mentioned studies that show that mindfulness brings with it immense improvement in results, whether you’re talking about a good marriage, raising a smart and happy child or dealing with willpower challenges.

Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” For instance, one of the most difficult things for me is the addiction to Facebook and to email reading. While I’m working, without even noticing I switch over to Facebook every few minutes, or open my Gmail and start answering emails. It’s hard to be productive in this way. But as I improve my mindfulness, I find myself working and telling myself – ah! There’s that urge to open Facebook. It comes because I’m feeling bored by what I’m doing right now. As soon as I become aware of that urge and think about it, many times it simply goes away. Not always, obviously, but often.

Self awareness is as much a skill as anything else we do, and that means it needs to be learned and practiced. A lot, if you want to be any good. The way to do that is meditation. It’s funny that three Western science books recommend an Eastern practice, but there you have it – studies show it actually works.

I’ve been practicing a daily 20-minute meditation session with HeadSpace for over a year, and it’s hard to quantify it and tell you exactly how useful it is, but apart from the fact that I’m really enjoying myself, I think it’s also significantly improved my willpower and my relationships with other people. (It takes a lot of willpower to shut up and not tell your wife you think she’s wrong when she’s pissed off.)

It’s easier to do things than to not-do things

There are a couple of different kinds of willpower challenges:

  1. Things that I need willpower in order to see them through – go to the gym, eat healthy, focus on my work.
  2. Things that I need willpower in order not to do them – open my Facebook while I’m working, eat junk food between meals, buy expensive things that I don’t actually need.

The book claims that it’s much easier to focus on things I want to do than on things I don’t want to do. Believe it or not, studies show that there’s no proof of diets being helpful in the long run. On the contrary, there is quite a lot of evidence that many times we get fat right after a diet, and that people that are always going up and down the scale are hurting their health in the long run. When we tell ourselves we’re not allowed to eat that croissant, we’re telling ourselves not to think about a white bear. And as everyone knows, once you tell someone not to think about a white bear, they can think of nothing but.

The way to deal with these challenges is to try and think about the things you can do instead, rather than disallowing the things you want to do. Trying to lose weight? Better push yourself to exercise and to cook healthy meals. Do that for a while and you’ll probably find yourself thinking less about croissants, and that urge will disappear by itself.

When I’m dealing with my addiction to Facebook and Gmail, I’m not trying to prevent myself from using them, but I do tell myself that I should finish task such-and-such first, and only then I’m allowed to go on Facebook.

To sum up,

Willpower is another one of those things that they don’t teach us about in any school, but has decisive influence on our lives. The fact that no one talks about it, or that everyone treats bad willpower like a force majeure is a mistake in my opinion. The better we get at understanding why we (and others) behave like we do, the higher our chances to get our lives to look like we want them to, and of course, the better designers we will become.

Post by Ran Segall

Ran is head of product, designer and co-founder at the nuSchool. He's also a mentor at The Designer's Pricing Class.

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