Although quite often referred to by such names as ‘determination’, ‘self-discipline’, ‘drive’, or ‘self-control’, I bet that the term ‘willpower’ is the most recognizable among these synonymous terms; known to and heard by all of us. We envy the willpower of a marathon runner, and admire the willpower of an injured athlete completing their performance despite their injury. We praise our willpower when starting a diet, and blame our lack of it when giving up to immediate appetites. We hope for willpower when continuously striving to manage our temptations, and control our thoughts, emotions and actions. In essence, willpower is seen as the ‘magic’ ability to resists short-term instincts and temptations in order to achieve some ultimate goal. Quite commonly, it is the missing piece that would link our intentions to actual desired behaviors in spite of all the challenges along the way.
Yet, despite its popularity and desirability, we do not know much about willpower. How to manage the ability of self-control? Why is it so fickle? Where does it come from?
Willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, sheds some light on the aforementioned questions. Surprisingly, he argues that willpower is neither a personality trait, nor a skill or virtue, but rather it operates like a muscle. As such, Baumeister with colleagues (2007) came up with a strength model of willpower, which proposes several important notions.
First of all, willpower is not merely a mindset. It is a mind-body response, which implies that willpower has as firm biological basis. Foremost, research has shown that willpower is connected to the heart rate variability (HRV), which is determined by the autonomic nervous system’s balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation levels. An experimental research by Segerstrom and Solberg Nes (2007) tested the hypothesis by putting participants into a willpower-demanding situation – asking them to eat carrots and resist cookies – and also measured their HRV. The results indicated that HRV was elevated during high self-control effort (eat carrots, resist cookies), as opposed to low self-control effort (east cookies, resist carrots). Moreover, the participants with initially higher levels of HRV showed greater willpower during the experiment. The study’s authors concluded that HRV appears to be an index of willpower strength, and that high HRV reflects a healthy and flexible activation of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, with the latter being especially important during self-regulation activities. As opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ mind-body response when the sympathetic nervous system gets highly activated and redirects energy to the heart and large muscles, willpower usually demands more mental effort, as it is often a matter of not acting, and hence inhibitory systems should be activated to promote calm reflection.
Understanding the relation of willpower to human physique and its dependence on energy resources makes a good entrance for the next point: willpower depletes resources in the body. In other words, exerting willpower literally fatigues us, just as a muscle gets tired after exertion. Galliot et al. (2007) found that acts of self-control reduce the levels of blood-glucose, which in turn leads to poor self-control on subsequent behavioral tasks. Knowing that glucose is also the primary fuel of the body, it becomes evident that our minds and bodies feed from the same source of strength. So, here is the news: skipping meals does not only decrease our physical abilities to perform, but also impairs our willpower. That is one of the reasons why going food-shopping when being tired and hungry is a bad idea – our willpower ‘muscle’ will have no energy to resist all the temptations that marketing professionals prepare for us.
The notion of willpower depletion also leads to the next realization; that willpower is a limited resource. A relevant research review by Baumesiter (2003) showed that people who exerted willpower in one situation struggled to do so a second time. These studies also demonstrate that willpower is general, namely there are no separate willpower ‘muscles’ for resisting junk food, making oneself exercise or waking up early in the mornings, it is all the same source. Hence, as willpower is limited, exerting it in one area decreases our ability to do so in the other. This has several implications. Firstly, we cannot expect ourselves to control all of our temptations – we need to prioritize. If making yourself exercise is an act that requires lots of willpower from you, give yourself a break on some less important things (e.g. allow yourself to procrastinate a bit). Secondly, understanding that it is not possible to ‘do it all’, as there are not enough willpower resources to control all your ‘bad’ habits and engage in all the positive activities, we should be easier with ourselves in accepting setbacks and imperfections in our strive for ‘living the right way’.
Luckily, as in case with physical power, restoring willpower is possible. Research (e.g. Baumeister et al., 2007; Tice et al., 2007) suggests that physical rest (enough sleep), foods that keep blood glucose levels relatively stable, positive emotions (especially humor and laughter), incentives, and motivation are the most effective willpower boosters to use.
Finally, similar to a muscle, willpower is trainable! As Baumeister et al. (2007) argues, there are signs that regular exertion to willpower can improve its strength. The improvement is seen as a better resistance to depletion, meaning the more you exercise your self-control, the easier it is for you to resist your temptations and short-term urges. Importantly, targeted efforts to control your behavior in one area lead to improvements also in unrelated areas – flexing your willpower ‘muscle’ makes it generally stronger overall. Therefore, committing to small self-control acts of holding your temper when being annoyed for example, contributes to your ability to exert willpower when it gets difficult on the treadmill.
All in all, willpower is more than a metaphor! It is our hidden ‘muscle’ that – like all the other muscles in our body – needs training, recovery and smart usage.