In today’s article I’m talking about will power: what it is and how to master it. Pair strong will power with a growth mindset and a “stress is good” mindset and you’ll be invincible!

I. Good to know

Learn more about the science of self control from this article.

II. Deep dive

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”

Self-control is one of the most powerful keys to success in life and also a vital key to understanding human selfhood. Self-control is about changing yourself: regulating your thoughts, your emotions, your impulses and desires, and your task performance.

Self- control is key in decision making, big and small, be it what we eat for dinner, if we invest or not in something, if we start a war or not. Most major problems, personal or social, revolve around a self control issue: compulsive spending or borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger. It also correlates to every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.

Self control and temptation

Oscar Wild “I can resist everything, except temptation!”

Checking email or social media, surfing gossip sites or shopping sites, playing a video game are just some of the temptations eating at our focus during the day. According to a study by Baumeister, experiencing a desire of some kind at any given  moment is rather the norm than the exception. We spend a quarter of our waking time trying to resist a desire or other. And that’s just one way in which we use will power in a day. Add to that decision making (even simple things like shopping without a grocery list) or refraining from a certain behavior during a meeting (e.g. not reacting to a colleague’s attitude) and you’ve got yourself a depleted person, ready to turn to a couch potato in the evening, also very possibly fighting with the partner and children.

Top 3 desires we resist during the day:

  • the urge to eat,
  • the urge to sleep and
  • the urge to relax, chill.

The most used strategy to cope with these urges is distracting one’s attention, engaging in an activity or toughing through it. On an average the success of will power over urge was 50%.

I can do what I want!

Refraining one’s self has become for the past 70 years or more the bad thing. The pre WWI years plagued society with a very prude morality in Europe, which led to a lot of tension bubbling up. Victorian morals recommended covering the legs of the table, Austro-Hungarian morals required men to all look the same in order to be taken as serious: fat, bearded, wear glasses and a cane, be over 50 years old. The society of the period between the two WW threw away much of the restrictions, with women cutting their hairs, wearing trousers and starting to study and to work. By the 1960’s the norm was “It it feels good, do it.” Fast forward 50 years we worship indulgence in all it’s forms, we live in a culture of binge, we have gone to the other extreme. From the stiff and restrained human who has to obey all sorts of rules we have transitioned to humans who binge on food, social media, alcohol, shopping, relationships, sex, etc. We threw will power or self control to the bin. But are we actually better now?

Regaining self control

We do what we want. We are free. We indulge. And then we want the best things for ourselves but we can’t achieve them, because we lack the self discipline that could get us what we want, so we decide to want less and blame others for our misery.  “Self regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.” (Baumeister, Losing Control) So, what to do?

In a culture that worships comfort our only way to self control is to reinsert discomfort on a regular basis. Will power can be trained and it can be increased by regularly taking up new challenges in self control.

  1. Set yourself challenges of restriction in different ways: food, social media, TV, alcohol, shopping, sex etc.
  2. Set yourself challenges of adding new abilities: make the bed every morning, tidy up your desk every day, do 10 push ups, learn a new language etc. Anything that will take you out of your comfort zone.

Increase progressively. Reward rarely and unexpectedly. Only praise your effort and your persistence.

Good luck!