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Willpower is Overvalued

Willpower is a second-rate tool in our quest for peak performance.

It’s a false aspiration.

We need a better understanding of how to use willpower (aka self-control) effectively.

According to the 2012 Stress in America study by American Psychology Association¹, a lack of willpower was the top reason respondents fell short of their goals to lose weight, save more money, exercise, or make other lifestyle changes.

The problem is we have a finite amount of willpower.

By using willpower too often, we deplete our reserves, decreasing our ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behavior in the face of temptations and impulses.

That’s when we start making bad decisions, which lead to bad habits, and, ultimately, not achieving our goals.

But we’re not going to let that happen…

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Willpower and Video Games

Think of willpower like a video game. To win, you must navigate the day through a series of obstacles that work against your personal goals.

You start each morning with a certain amount of brain power, represented by a little meter in the top right-hand side of your vision.

As you move through each level of your day you call on your brain power in order to overcome new obstacles.

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology², engaging in a single act of self-control impairs subsequent attempts at self-control as if some sort of energy had been used up during the initial act.

Level One, The Morning Routine:

  • Will you get up early to read, journal, exercise, or meditate?
  • What will you have for breakfast?
  • Did you drink a big glass of water?

Level Two, Work Routine:

  • Are you scheduling “Deep Work” time?
  • Have you removed unnecessary distractions?
  • Are you forcing people who email you to work harder?

And so, with each “level” of your day, you’re faced with new and more challenging obstacles to achieving your goals.

Each time you draw on your willpower the little meter measuring your brain power reserves gets smaller and you become more vulnerable.

Eventually, your power meter runs out.

Faced with the decision of “what to eat for dinner?” you pass on making a whole-food, anti-inflammatory meal and instead decide on “something quick and easy,” grabbing a pizza on the way home from work.

Game over. You lose.

If the game seems rigged, don’t worry, I’m about to give you the cheat codes…

How to Win at Willpower

James Clear said it best in his new book, Atomic Habits:

“Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.”

Every day, we make decisions to resist impulses in the quest for a healthier, happier life.

To do this, we need a long-term strategy.

Willpower is not the answer.

Here are two strategies for limiting our need to deplete willpower reserves while focusing on our peak performance goals:

1) Consistent Glucose Levels

Poor self-control is attributed to drops in glucose³, a simple sugar made by plants.

The same Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found blood glucose showed significant drops following acts of self-control. These resulting low glucose levels after the initial self-control task were linked to poor self-control on subsequent tasks.

When researchers manipulated the glucose levels, (by giving subjects glucose during the experiment), self-control indicators showed significant improvement from the initial task.

Just like finding a hidden, “Power Up,” in your favorite video game, by maintaining a consistent level of glucose throughout the day we reenergize our willpower meter.

This doesn’t mean you can pound candy all day in the name of replenishing glucose.

Candy, soda and all other processed food are made with a more complex form of sugar called sucrose which has several negative side effects including:

  • Weight gain,
  • Inflammation, and
  • Blood sugar spikes and crashes.

When you need to replenish glucose focus instead on anti-inflammatory, whole-foods including:

  • Berries,
  • Avocado,
  • Tree nuts (i.e. walnuts, almonds, etc),
  • Vegetables and Greens (with a little olive oil for flavor), and
  • Whole-grains.

The key is to replenish your reserve of willpower supporting glucose so when you need exert self-control, it’s there for you.

2) Habits, Practices and Routines

The best way to keep a solid reserve of willpower at your disposal is to not use it in the first place.

Disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.

In other words, disciplined people build habits, practices and routines into their life which reduce the mental energy necessary to achieve their goals.

It would be a tremendous waste of mental energy constantly having to learn everything all over again, each time we performed an action.

Habits are an evolutionary gift to reduce mental load.

Our conscious mind has evolved to hand down tasks which are ingrained int the subconscious mind triggered automatically based on patterns of behavior.

That’s the reason we feel habits are automatic and that we have little or no control over them⁴.

Unfortunately, as we all know, bad habits form just as easily (if not more) than good habits, which are often the cause of large pulls on willpower energy stores.

Focused effort on aligning good habits with goals is paramount to long-term success.


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The Rub

“When your desires are strong enough, you will appear to possess superhuman powers to achieve.”

Napoleon Hill

Outside of video games, no one has superhuman powers.

Instead, these seemingly superhuman beings fuel their body and build habits into their life so that, in moments of need, their stock of mental energy is full and be used to its full capacity.

Willpower should be our last resort, not a catchall determination of success.

Thank you,

Ryan Hanley

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