Can you build willpower?

Have you got the willpower?

It’s that time of year when we make resolutions and commitments to improve aspects of our lives. This is the year we’ll get fit, reduce weight, be more patient, drink less, eat healthily.

To achieve any goal requires willpower. But what is it? Willpower is the strength and discipline to control our actions to achieve a desired outcome. Sometimes willpower makes us act – like getting out of bed in the morning to exercise. And sometimes it helps to refrain from acting – like eating those delicious cookies. Largely then its a mental decision – and our ability to keep that decision.

Willpower requires energy, and using it depletes our stock. If you sit with those cookies in front of you, temptation will grow and your resolve will weaken. This isn’t because you are weak, it’s just you can’t resist a strong desire which is easily fulfilled for long. You need to change the environment to remove reliance on willpower and put another force into effect. Namely lock the cookies in the cupboard.

This is one of the challenges of New Year resolutions. We take our finite stock of willpower and spread it across too many goals. No cookies, no alcohol, early starts – pretty soon our daily mental energy levels are depleted and we relent. Better to focus on one or two goals and achieve them. It’s also an idea to make those goals not too ambitious since again they may exceed our energy levels on their own.

Like any strength, willpower increases with proper use. Gradually we can set larger goals for ourselves, or multiple initiatives safe in the knowledge we have the capacity to make them happen. If we know we can give up cookies, perhaps cake and chocolate can be next, and we’ll feel more confident about making that permanent change having started small.

There are examples of people making radical changes to their lives. Normally after a dramatic life event, which gives them a deep pool of willpower on which to draw. A big enough thing to say ‘Yes’ to if you like. For the rest of us, gradual exercise of will in a controlled way can have a big positive impact on our lives over time.