Have you ever wanted to push yourself a little more, a little harder or just a little bit further?
Of course, this could be in a workout, at your work or even in your family life.
You know the benefits of breaking bad habits, setting good ones and aiming to be just a little bit better than you were yesterday.
But does it always happen?
How can we get to the next level? How can we push ourselves to maximum potential?
Today, I’ll explain exactly how you can train your willpower like a muscle and how to push yourself to the next level, including:
- The two questions which push me daily
- The science of willpower (but what the scientists often miss)
- 3 simple daily tasks which can propel you to your best self
You in? Let’s get started.
First, let me tell you a little story…
A few months ago my life got a little crazy…
Emily and I stuffed about as many huge life events as you could into a two-month time period.
I got promoted in the military, I also left the military (active duty), we had our second baby boy, and we moved from Florida to Texas.
A lot going on and a tad bit stressful, but why not? Like a band-aid…rip it right off!
All this to tell you that it had a dramatic effect on my willpower in the gym…not super surprising…
I had so many BIG things going on which needed my attention and willpower, that even though I would still workout – it wasn’t the same. My intensity way suffering and I had no real motivation to follow a program…I was just going through the motions.
The worst part about being mentally fatigued is, even if you realize what’s going on…you may not have the willpower to change it.
But I started asking myself two questions every day, which helped me dramatically:
Question #1: What do you deserve?
Question #2: Who are you going to be?
Why these questions?
- What do you deserve? When I didn’t have the desire to do something I would simply ask myself if I deserved not to do it. Well, I know I don’t deserve to be worse off tomorrow than I am today, so that made a lot of decisions easier. I don’t deserve a break. I don’t deserve that unhealthy meal. I don’t deserve to be coddled. I don’t deserve to have anything handed to me.
- Who are you going to be? I don’t believe there is a person you “are”, which is unchangeable or stagnate. So it’s not “Who are you?”, it’s “Who are you going to be?” When I know I needed to push myself in a workout, when I didn’t want to take a cold shower (more on that in a minute), when I just didn’t want to do anything but sit down and take a break…the question would come to my mind… “Who are you going to be?”. Raising two boys who will have their eyes on me and my actions for many years to come makes this question an easy answer. I’ll be the person who pushes myself and the person who takes things to the next level.
Now, my example may resonate with you, or not at all. Either is irrelevant because now we get to take a look at what was going on when I would ask myself those questions…
The science behind these questions is two fold:
- The questions sparked intrinsic motivation (for me) – Yes, that means the questions may not work for you…
- I was exercising my willpower – making it tougher, more durable and capable.
Let’s talk about exercising willpower.
The Science of Willpower
It was once believed that willpower was, willpower. You had it, or you didn’t. It was a similar theory to the world being flat…WRONG!
New research suggests willpower is more like a muscle in the fact that it becomes more fatigued with constant use. From the American Psychological Association:
Every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. You resist the urge to surf the Web instead of finishing your expense report. You reach for a salad when you’re craving a burger. You bite your tongue when you’d like to make a snide remark. Yet a growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.
If you want to read more about this stuff, there are a ton of studies cited at the end of this article.
A lot of the studies say something along the lines of “willpower is like a muscle which can get fatigued from overuse”…
To think willpower dwindles throughout the day is a bit discouraging, but there is a silver lining!
Say you and I did a squat workout today…
Would you be discouraged if I told you the squat workout we are doing is going to make your legs very tired…So by the end of the workout you won’t be able to lift as much as you did at the beginning of the workout…
No, that’s not discouraging! Because you know if we keep doing it week after week, you’ll be able to lift more in a month than you ever could today!
This is where the scientists/researchers miss it, if they are only trying to figure out if willpower is like a muscle…they find out and move on. Some of the studies linked below — that’s all they did. They proved, in their experiments and trials, it seemed willpower was a limited resource which could be fatigued and…that’s it!
But what about training? What about increasing willpower? What about becoming a better human!?
Good news, there has been some separate research which shows it is possible to train willpower. Another article from the American Psychological Association says, as with physical exercise, using your self-control muscle may be tiring, but over time the workout increases your strength and stamina. So what starts out difficult becomes easier over time. New behaviors become habits, temptations become less overwhelming and willpower challenges can even become fun.
How can we do that?
3 Daily Tasks to Improve the Greatest Human Strength
So what can we do on a daily basis to improve our willpower. To push ourselves to the next level? To be better?
3 daily task to improve willpower:
1.) Meditation – Turns out this whole mediation thing is becoming a pretty big deal. If you missed the first “better-human experiment” podcast about mediation check it out HERE. The APA says, mediation can improve a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. For example, regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice — brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.
2.) Working out – The APA also says, while scientists are not 100% certain on the “why”, they do know that working out also leads to similar changes in the brain as mediation, especially the prefrontal cortex. Regular exercise – both intense training and mindful exercise like yoga — also makes the body and brain more resilient to stress, which is a great boost to willpower. The scientists don’t know why…but if I brought them to my garage for a training session they would understand why exercise can test willpower (and improve it) in a significant manner.
3.) Doing What You Don’t Want to Do – This one is not backed by science, rather from experience. I try to do one thing that pushes me mentally each day, something I don’t want to do. For me, it’s normally a cold shower. Some mornings after working out in the cold I just don’t want to take a cold shower. I’ll even start with hot and be like…man I really just don’t want to make this water cold. Anytime I feel like I really don’t want to, it’s almost as if I’ve trained my hand to adjust the knob before I can finish the thought. Doing this day after day has increased my ability to do things I just don’t want to do. It’s made me better.
When you wake up in the morning, you have been given another opportunity to push yourself…to be better.
Don’t squander your time being mediocre, or average.
At each tough spot in your day, find your “questions” which motivate you and learn to push yourself. Strengthen your will.
I’ve often said to friends, family, training partners, athletes, etc. “Who else gets to practice mental toughness like you do today, right now?”
When you wake up, or step into the gym, or find yourself in a tough situation…it’s an opportunity.
How will you strength your willpower today?
- Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.
- Baumeister, et al. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351–355.
- Job, V., et al. (2010). Ego depletion — Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686–1693.