Habit Science: Part 3

My Life With Willpower

For me, willpower has always had a negative connotation. It is directly associated with my public schooling experience. Just the thought of it reminds me of elementary school self esteem assessments, being branded by the public school system as ‘average’, and not living up to its (inherently flawed) expectations. Association is a powerful driver for memory.

Whats really telling is that that association has seeped through the processes of my everyday life for years. Its convinced me that reflecting on willpower and my ability to manage myself are not intimately intertwined. Its convinced me that willpower is a concept that will only cause stress if thought about. Its told me time and again that it is a bad word, never to be uttered if I’m trying to feel good about myself.

As we can easily deduce, my willpower is not the best. Since my public schooling days, I’ve veered away from trying to understand it better. I’ve removed it from my vocabulary out of spite for those feelings of inadequacy. Like ‘responsibility’ or ‘punctuality’, ‘willpower’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I kind of hate it.

Why Does Willpower Matter So Much?

Willpower is defined by Webster’s as

the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult.

In any successful adoption of a good habit, willpower is like the bedrock anchoring the individual to the implementation of it. When willpower is not in check, bad habits tend to take over. Whether good or bad, habits are directly impacted by willpower.

Willpower is a crucial part of habit forming. To basically anyone, this is probably pretty obvious. To me however, this was surprising to learn. Reading it in The Power of Habit felt almost radical. It was as if I’d finally found a light switch for a very dark corner of my brain.

When we successfully implement willpower, we can achieve things that might otherwise be outside our immediate scope. If ideas were only set in motion by practicality, its unlikely goals or good habits would ever extend beyond a non-confrontational purview. With habits, willpower ignites the spirit of an individual. It often brings the immediacy of action to something that is only an abstract concept. When we exercise willpower, we push ourselves to self-determination.

The Science of Willpower

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg relates examples of willpower as observed in a number of scientific studies, all deepening our understanding of how and why it works. In one, participants were types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientists conducting the experiment wanted to see if they could help them harness their willpower. They gave the participants booklets to list out goals to initiate rehabilitation strategies after taxing surgeries. They discovered that the patients who learned to visualize their habits, had far greater willpower than those who didn’t.

Wanting something, as opposed to abstractly understanding a need for it, allows for a unique approach to adopting routines. The patients who visualized their desired outcomes did so with meticulous effort and detail. By journaling the steps involved in a certain act, they introduced willpower as a driving mechanism for achieving it. This method showed a high achievement of proper rehabilitation.

For example, if a patient needed to take a daily walk to encourage exercise after a hip replacement surgery, they would journal about how the walk would occur, when, where, and why, all down to the most specific details. The outcome revolved around making a highly detailed visualization of the walk to make the act significantly easier to deal with. If there were no willpower involved, this kind of approach would never be realized.

This kind of journal is just one of many examples of how willpower impacts our performances on a daily basis.

How to Engage Your Willpower

As I stated above, willpower has never been my strong suite. While I’ve had productive moments, my productivity tends to ebb and flow based solely on how much I feel like doing something.

Ironically, I took an unplanned hiatus from this blog while writing this entry. It was ironic because the entry was about willpower and after writing consistently through the first 2 weeks of the new year, I quickly lost all self discipline and control to work on my blog. I had moments of ‘overwhelment’, laziness, and purposeful distraction. I made excuses, pretended like it didn’t exist, and avoided it at all costs. It was hard coming back to it.

Needless to say, I returned for a reason. I wanted to finish this if only for myself. I started this blog to make myself adopt a powerful and productive habit, and as of this entry, it was doing pretty well. Its made me think about and realize that understanding the processes behind self mastery are only half the battle. The true test happens in implementation.

With that, I wanted to provide some resources and ideas I’ve found helpful in this process for ensuring something like willpower is never out of your reach:

  • Stigma is a personal journal and mood tracking app. I recently downloaded it after asking the internet (as I so often do) why I felt so overwhelmed. So far, I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful. I am an extremely visual person so being able to see my mood shifts through with a color coded calendar is fascinating and enlightening. I have only been using it for three days, but its effects are clear. It is almost like having a therapist in your pocket.
  • Keeping Up With Your Calendar I never thought I would be someone who actively updated their calendar, but since I have, my mood and desire to accomplish things have significantly improved. The era of the smart phone has really made it easier than ever to structure even the laziest of people to boot. When I think of something I need to do, I immediately put it in my calendar and set a reminder, even if its not that important. When something is scheduled and set to remind you later on, your mind is free to focus on your more immediate tasks. Your brain isn’t designed to remember every single thing needed to complete a major project or task. We wouldn’t need offices if that were the case. Thus, planning improves willpower. Willpower encourages good habits.
  • Carry a Small Notebook for Journaling, Idea Forming, or Planning I’ve been doing this for about a year now. It works a little better in the winter when you have more pockets available, but the idea is to have a physical notebook on your person throughout the day. Avoid keeping it in a bag or purse, as you’re more inclined to forget about it. For me, detaching technology from personal improvement tends to ground me in a way a smart phone or laptop can’t. When I write freehand, I make mistakes I can’t delete with a backspace button. The writing becomes so much more intimate and real. I can commute without a bright screen straining my retinas and become completely engrossed in the task without interruption from texts, social networks, or email. The more I think about it, the more I reflect on how good it actually feels.

Its only 3 things, but if you’re like me, you don’t do well with following long lists anyway. I hope this gives any reader struggling with these things a better understanding of adopting a life of self mastery. To that, we say onward!




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