The facts behind why humans have trouble making meaningful change, and Dr. NerdLove’s guide for how to level up in your life.
Every year we go through a familiar ritual that culminates with a failure of willpower. Everyone makes promises about how they’re going to do something better in the new year and then promptly forgets all about it before the month is even over. In fact, right now, I’m watching the usual influx of New Years gym memberships filter out after clogging the treadmills and weight machines for three weeks. Similarly, people are giving up on their promises to quit smoking, to eat better, to flirt more, to learn a new language – all of those self-improvement regimens that were supposed to make them better people in 2015.
It’s not that they don’t sincerely intend to do better. It’s all because they lack the willpower.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that they’re weak or bad people. Most of us don’t realize that willpower is a finite resource. When you run out of willpower you fall into a state known as “ego-depletion” – it becomes incredibly difficult, almost impossible even, to control your impulses. This is why it’s so easy to let your resolution to hit the gym five times a week slip to three… then to two… then to “haven’t been in two months”. This is why when you’ve had a long day, all you want to do is collapse on the couch and zone out to a Castle marathon on Netflix. It’s why diets notoriously don’t work. You reach the limits of your willpower and your ability to resist the siren call of pizza evaporates into thin air like Green Lantern’s ring running out of power.
Any form of self-improvement is dependent on willpower… so how do you make your will stronger?
Willlpower Is Like A Muscle
The first step in building up your willpower is to recognize that willpower isn’t unchangeable. When we hear people talk about people who are weak-willed or who lack willpower, we’re making the assumption that your willpower is static; some people have lots, others have little and there’s nothing you can do about it.
(Rather like the belief that either you’re good with women or you’re not, actually…)
But that’s not the case. Willpower is like a muscle; it takes work and discipline, but you can build your willpower up and make it stronger. And the key to building your willpower… is to use it to exhaustion as often as possible.
Confused? Stick with me for a second as I vastly over-simplify things.
Muscles grow bigger and stronger through exercise. By straining the muscle to its capacity to contract, you introduce micro-tears into the muscle fibers. When those tears heal, they increase the muscle’s bulk and elasticity, increasing its ability to bear more tension and weight. Taxing your muscles to exhaustion prompts the muscle cells to increase the amount of mitochondria – the power plants of your cells – which enables them to work harder for longer.
Taxing your willpower to exhaustion works in a similar manner; draining your willpower increases your mental and emotional stamina. The more that you push your limits, the stronger your willpower becomes.
The problem is that, in keeping with the muscle metaphor, we’re doing all the wrong exercises. Most of us are using our willpower in the wrong way.
You Have To Use Your Willpower Wisely
Part of the reason why we have such a hard time sticking to self-improvement plans is that we’re indiscriminate in how we use our willpower. We squander it on meaningless tasks and when when we need it, we find we’ve run out.
To get nerdy for the moment, consider the Green Lantern Corps. Their rings can create just about anything they imagine, as long as they will it into existence. However, the rings have a limited charge; at a certain point, their rings run out of power and their energy constructs disappear. If you had a power ring and expend that power needlessly – showing off to your friends, say, by creating giant Hot Wheels tracks – you end up draining the tank and leaving yourself vulnerable when you need it most. If you’re careful with how well you expend your energy however, you’re able to to pull off some amazing feats when they count.