“The one quality which sets one apart from another – the key which lifts one to every aspiration while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity – is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness; it is self-discipline. With self-discipline, all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.” — Theodore Roosevelt, from The Skinny on Willpower by Jim Randel
Update From Stephen: There is an excellent new book out on willpower that I highly recommend: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It
Self-discipline, or what is more commonly called willpower, is an important component in the traits that are required to achieve long term goals such as hard work, determination, and perseverance. These are being wrapped up in a trait that psychology researchers are calling grit.
“In a series of provocative new studies at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers find that the gritty are more likely to achieve success in school, work and other pursuits—perhaps because their passion and commitment help them endure the inevitable setbacks that occur in any long-term undertaking. In other words, it’s not just talent that matters but also character. “Unless you’re a genius, I don’t think that you can ever do better than your competitors without a quality like grit,” says Martin E. P. Seligman.” — Peter Doskoch
Grit goes beyond willpower, but willpower is a necessary component of grit. In addition, willpower is critical in many short term goals and daily activities that don’t require large amounts of grit.
“There is nothing that matters more in goal accomplishment than the ability to resist the urge to give in to little voices that tell us that it’s okay to quit when the going gets tough… The key to success with any goal is to withstand temptation and persist through discomfort.” – Caroline Adams
Your Willpower is Limited
Research has clearly demonstrated that willpower is a limited resource. When you exercise deliberate control to suppress urges, suppress thoughts, make decisions, resist temptations, or summon the will to do something, you are depleting a limited supply. Having used up some of that supply, you will find it more difficult to summon willpower in the next situation in which you need it.
Sleep seems to refresh your supply of your willpower much like it refreshes other mental resources. There are also indications that exercise and meditation increase your overall willpower capacity. This should not be surprising as both exercise and mediation have been shown to improve a wide range of mental functions. A sugary drink (definitely not recommended), or a rest period will also help.
The bottom line is that you must find ways to limit your need to use your willpower and thus preserve this critical resource.
Make it a Habit
The absolute best thing you can do to ensure you have the willpower to persist in the face of challenges and temptations, is to simply conserve it. One way to do this by turning as much positive activity as possible into habitual behavior. I assume you don’t have to exert willpower to brush your teeth every day and that doing so has just become an automatic part of your daily routines.
About 10 years ago I went on a very strict diet for about 1 year. I went cold turkey on a bunch of crap I had been stuffing myself with for decades. This took a lot of willpower at first, but after a few months on the diet it took absolutely no self-control to maintain. I simply got in the habit of refusing to eat certain foods. There was no decision involved. I didn’t have to continually debate whether I should or I shouldn’t eat something and I thereby preserved my willpower resources for other issues. Over the subsequent years, when I applied less strict standards, I found myself failing to eat properly much more frequently. This was especially true when my willpower was drained at the end of a stressful day.
Other Ways to Enhance and Conserve Your Willpower
You simply need to avoid putting yourself in situations that will constantly require you to exercise control of some tendency or urge. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence of depletion is convincing.
Connect Your Actions to Deep Values
Value-based decisions are easier to make. They require less deliberate control. You are creating rules for your behavior ahead of time. A deep commitment to the values that are thus represented, make the decisions to act or to refrain from acting much easier as the individual situations arise.
Plan For Problems
When you are attacking a project, try to plan ahead for problems and challenges. By creating some black and white rules for how you will act under certain circumstances, you can reduce the need for stressful deliberation.
Create a Keyword Reminder
Create a keyword or short phrase to remind yourself of whatever deep value you are trying satisfy and then use that keyword whenever you find yourself weakening. It will remind you and motivate you to continue. Furthermore you will create a habit of responding positively to the keyword.
Don’t Dilute Your Willpower Reserve
If you try to tackle too many projects or goals at once, you will likely not have enough willpower reserve to accomplish them all.
Control Your Thoughts
“Willpower is directly connected to mind control. Once you realize that you have the ability to eject negative thoughts from you mind and inject positive thoughts into the void, you have taken a gigantic step toward a lifetime of self-discipline as and when you need it.” – Jim Randel
Break Tasks Into Small Chunks
It takes a lot of willpower to create momentum and get started on projects for which there is a large gap between where you are now and where you need to get to. Instead, focus on the first tiny step that you can almost fall into.
Give Yourself Time to Recover
If you have just finished a willpower sucking activity, give yourself a break before starting anything else that requires self-discipline.
Use the Morning
Since your willpower is strongest in the morning, it just makes sense to undertake those activities that require the most willpower as early in the day is possible. For example if you are starting an exercise program, try to develop the exercise habit in the morning when your willpower is at its strongest.
For an excellent treatment of willpower I recommend The Skinny on Willpower, How to Develop Self Discipline by Jim Randel.
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