We all know people that have iron wills. It seems like nothing can stop them. They set their mind to something and they just do it. Doesn’t matter how hard it is, their internal strength is stronger.
How do they do it? Turns out, they think about willpower differently than you and me.
One of my good friends, Aaron, is a person of amazing willpower. One time in college, he ran a marathon and almost qualified for the Boston Marathon—a prestigious marathon for the most elite of runners.
That alone isn’t impressive. Thousands of people qualify for the Boston Marathon every year and tens of thousands forget that they have a car and decide to run 26.2 miles.
No, it is not remarkable that he ran or that he ran well. What is incredible is that Aaron did it despite not training and not being a runner. He did it on a whim, with very little training, even less planning, and absolutely no common sense.
I remember watching Aaron cross the finish line. No one ever looked more exhausted. He leaned forward, barely putting one leg in front of another, and his body sagged as if . . . well, as if he had just run 26.2 miles. It was the ultimate picture of mind over body.
How is it that Aaron can run a marathon while I struggle to get out of bed in the morning?
Why do so many of us go to sleep with the best of intentions, vowing that tomorrow is going to be the first day of the rest of our new lives, and yet fall back into the same traps by lunchtime?
One reason is that our willpower runs out. Like grains of sand running through an hourglass, it seems we have just so much willpower and when it runs out, it’s gone. However, research says it doesn’t have to be that way if we just learn to think about willpower differently.
A few years ago, a team of Stanford University researchers conducted a series of studies examining willpower failures and depletion--that is, the idea that we can run out of self-control because we exerted too much earlier. (Read it here. It is awesome.)
Repeatedly, they found that people who believed in limited self-control, that is, you can run out of self-control, experienced waning self-control the more they used their self-control. The more they tried to exert self-control, the more mentally “tired” they became until eventually they gave in and experienced self-control failure.
Want to know who didn’t struggle with self-control? Who kept strong despite constant attempts to tire them out and repeated use of their self-control muscle?
People that believe that self-control is unlimited, that using self-control make them stronger, that’s who!
I love this study!
Think about it—people that believe that using willpower is unlimited and that using it makes you stronger ACTUALLY BECAME MENTALLY STRONGER!!
Those that believed that willpower was limited were, in fact, limited.
In short, you are as strong as you believe you are.
Where do we go from here?
Now that we know that how we think about our willpower directly determines how much willpower we have, we can do a number of interventions to help ourselves and our clients build increased, powerful mental strength.
Examine Your Willpower Theory
What do you (or your clients) really believe about willpower? Do you think that it is limited? That it can run out? What are your personal beliefs about your own willpower? Do you feel that you are mentally strong or weak? Are there things that you just don’t have the capacity to overcome?
When you (or your clients) answer those questions, don’t just give the service level answer. No platitudes or impression management. Dig deep and introspect. In your heart of hearts, what do you actually believe?
You can answer these questions to yourself, a loved one, or a coach. Sometimes it is helpful to sit and write out your thoughts. There are lots of studies supporting writing as an effective means of self-discovery AND as a positive intervention. (Meaning writing about your willpower can increase your willpower. Highly recommend it.)
Regardless of how you answer these questions, you have to start by knowing what you believe about willpower. Once you know where you are, you can begin navigating a way forward.
Develop a New Theory About Willpower
In the original Stanford study, some of the research participants were taught that “your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it.” This new theory about willpower strengthened the participants and gave them even more willpower than they had previously. It follows that if you can internalize this new theory about willpower, you too will be stronger of mind.
To develop a new theory of willpower, focus on repetition and habit formation. Set up a daily habit of reminding yourself that every time you use willpower, you become stronger. When faced with a temptation, repeat an affirmation or mantra that supports your new theory of willpower.
I personally like to rehearse a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson every time my willpower is tested: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.”
If you use the Habit Architect platform, either for yourself or your clients, try to incorporate habit exercises that focus on reshaping the way that you think about willpower.
Reward Yourself for Willpower Victories
Developing a new theory about willpower will help shape your conscious brain but to make it stick, you also need to shape your unconscious mind. You do that through reinforcement/rewards. (Turns out the habit part of your brain is affected by dopamine, an intoxicating neurotransmitter that is released with rewards.)
Every time you win—you exercise willpower to do something you did not want to do—celebrate your victory. It doesn’t need to be a big celebration, it can be fist-pumping, smiling really wide, telling a friend, whatever. The point is that you acknowledge your victory, take pride in it, and enjoy the win.
If you consistently celebrate your willpower wins, you will quickly start to realize how you truly are strong. Moreover, you will become stronger. As you increase your willpower, you will overcome temptations that trapped you for years.
However, this isn’t going to occur overnight—you need to be consistent in celebrating your willpower wins and willing to keep going for weeks, months, and maybe even years. But if you want to be one of those people with iron wills, then it is worth a few minutes a day of celebrating yourself.
For those of you that use Architect, you can use that platform to help you develop this habit too. Simply set up a habit exercise to use your willpower at some point in the day. When you go into the system to record your success, Architect will automatically reward you and help you celebrate your win. (Learn more here.)
Make Willpower a Habit
All the interventions that we described will help you and your clients become stronger and develop greater willpower—IF YOU MAKE A HABIT OF DOING THEM!
Repeated actions shape our bodies and minds. We are what we consistently do.
If you want to be stronger, to have that iron willpower, then start today to do the little things to make yourself stronger. And keep at it. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. A little at a time, keep moving forward. Soon you will be stronger than you ever thought possible.
Indeed, you will be exactly as strong as you think you are.