Research on willpower shows there are two ways to look at it: as a limited resource that we should save up, or as a muscle that can be trained and strengthened. For more details on this discussion, see Willpower Is Like a Muscle, or the full chapter on it in the book.
There are two theories about willpower:
- Ego depletion theory: willpower is limited resource, and depletes throughout the day depending on the levels of glucose in your blood.
- Mindset theory: the amount of willpower you have depends on your mindset, motivation, and your beliefs about willpower—not so much on glucose levels.
Each of these theories tell half of the story. That is, willpower is a psychological force with a biological basis. Which means that you can increase your willpower by increasing the level of glucose in your bloodstream, or by developing more positive beliefs about your capacity. It is smart to do both.
In other words, you need to both manage your willpower reserves and strengthen your willpower by exercising it daily and cultivating an empowering mindset.
If you really want to grow your willpower, though, emphasize the mindset aspect. Why? Because otherwise you focus on your limitations, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You accept defeat too soon under the pretext of “Sorry, I’m out of glucose”.
Understand that your willpower is a mental muscle to be strengthened. You can seek conducive environments (with fewer temptations around), and you can create habits to save time and prevent decision fatigue, but don’t shy away from exercising your willpower. If you feel tired after exercising self-control multiple times, don’t take it as a sign that you must stop doing anything challenging—the limit is more in your mind than in your body.
Do you want more self-discipline in your life? Then believe that you can exercise it, and train yourself to tap into an endless source of willpower within you. And of course, be pragmatic and also make lifestyle changes that will help this process.
As a practical summary, here are four things you can do to increase your willpower, combining the ideas of both theories.
First and foremost, exercise your will. Take it seriously. Rely on it as if your life depended on it—because in some aspects it does. Believe in your power. Grow it daily through activities such as cold showers, fasting, meditation, behavior change, and habit-building.
Second, manage your energy. It makes sense to be aware of decision fatigue and to organize your routine around it. This means, among other things: starting the day with the most willpower-consuming tasks, diminishing the amount of trivial decisions you need to make on a daily basis, and learning to manage stress.
Third, optimize your lifestyle. Support your regular exercise of willpower with daily doses of good fuel and good rest: eat healthily, exercise your body, sleep enough, and practice meditation.
Finally, cultivate patience and perseverance. Muscles, whether physical or mental, don’t go from flabby to toned overnight. If you think that you can psych yourself up to have superhuman willpower by the time you’re done reading this essay…you’re in for disappointment.
So believe in your capacity, and be patient about increasing it. Aim for small willpower wins day after day. This will build your belief in yourself, and thus expand your capacity, as I discuss in the chapters on perseverance, procrastination and never zero in the book.
Willpower is one of the most important skills to be developed if you want to live a fulfilling life. Mindful Self-Discipline helps you develop it systematically.