Willpower Is A Limited Resource

Don't try to fool me; I know there are things you can't do. I know you can't:
  • keep your New Year's resolutions
  • concentrate
  • lose weight
  • stay motivated
  • be teetotal
  • become a morning person
  • countless other things that require a vague amount of willpower

And you know how I know this? Because willpower is a limited resource.This is not some amazing new revelation, people have known this for quite some time now, but it seems to be a surprisingly little-known fact.

There are two things willpower is like: a muscle, and energy.

Firstly, let's focus on the muscle bit. To put it simply, we all have a basic level of willpower, just as we all have a basic level of strength, in that it's different from one person to the next. Exert this willpower/muscle, and gradually it will become stronger. Basically the more you use it, the more you can use it. If you use a fair amount of willpower every day, then day by day your ability and capacity for it will increase and you won't actually feel like you're really putting in any effort at all. By the same token, if you stop using your willpower then it will deteriorate and you'll have to build it up from a lower level again, just like muscle.

For the energy aspect, this is simply because willpower can run out. If you don't fuel yourself properly, you will find that your willpower decreases just as if you tried to run a marathon on a single piece of broccoli. With the majority of things that require willpower being stuff like "I will go to the gym every day", "I will do three hours extra work every day", "I will cut down my sugar intake", they are all daily commitments that have the potential to drive you insane. In this instance, not only is fuel things like proper nourishment, plenty sleep, enough fresh air, a good amount of exercise - it's always, always, a break. If you try to do any willpower-requiring activities without giving yourself breaks, you are (ironically) heading for a breakdown.

Furthermore, like energy, willpower can and will diminish and eventually run out over the course of a day. Ever wondered why people on diets so often say they "do really well" until the evening when they find themselves chowing down an entire packet of biscuits? Yeah, it's because their willpower ran out. This is why it's often better to work out in the morning if your aim is to get fit, because then it's done and you can forget about it until tomorrow, or to have a healthy but equally really delicious breakfast if you want to be healthier because then you're not depriving yourself of enjoyment, or to get on with a solid amount of work in the morning if that's your aim because then you've made significant progress by lunch time and are way more likely to be able to take the evening off and just relax.

The most common example of running out of willpower is with New Years  Resolutions. People vow to be healthier or work harder or dedicate more time to this and that and the next thing, but the mistake that is made all too often is the vigour with which people throw themselves into these newfound habits. The analogy this time is a cold swimming pool. If you leap straight in, it will be horrible and unpleasant and before you know it you've got back out. If you go in a little bit at a time, you won't notice the change and soon enough you're paddling around quite happily in your pool of successfully achieved resolutions. For the sake of argument, we'll ignore the fact that people often say you should just jump into a cold swimming pool because I'm sorry but that is too literal and doesn't fit with what I'm trying to convey.

The point is that if you had a relatively average level of muscle strength and you decided you would bench 100kg every day for the foreseeable future, you would fail. However if you set benching 100kg as a goal somewhere along the way and instead started with a much more manageable weight, you would be masses more likely to succeed. Also you'd use up your entire energy store for the day on this one 100kg rep and then go home and stuff yourself as a reward and not be able to achieve anything else for the day. An exaggeration perhaps, but there is an underlying truth - pace yourself.

So the message:
  1.  Don't overestimate your willpower because all that will do is set you back;
  2. Set yourself realistic targets along the way and don't be afraid to modify them - it's always best for your targets to be too modest rather than too ambitious because then you'll feel like you're ahead of the game which in turn just makes you feel fabber;
  3. Don't use up all your willpower at once - ration it out over the course of a day/week/month etc.;
  4. Follow my blog by entering your emai- WHAT how did this find its way into this list golly gosh how sneaky of it just keep reading and don't concern yourself with subliminal messages..;
  5. Keep yourself sane! Take breaks, give yourself rewards (fun activities, food, shopping - anything), celebrate every tiny achievement! You kept up whatever it was you wanted to do for one more day? Well done! Just don't be unnecessarily strict on yourself whatever you do, because that will not help.
So go on then, get motivated, and flex that willpower.


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