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When I was very young, my mom left on a business trip for a whole week. My father, who I usually didn’t see much of during the week, now left work early to pick me up from kindergarten every day. We had some very memorable evenings together me and my dad – he cooked me dinner, we watched movies and hockey on TV, talked about all sorts of things long into the night after he had tucked me in and turned the lights off. The theme of these conversations was mostly what it means to be a man. I was very keen to find out if I possessed all those qualities that a man should – strength, kindness, character and this mysterious thing called ‘willpower’.
So my father said to me, “Do you want to find out if you have willpower?”
I replied “Of course I do.”
“OK, go to the kitchen and touch the fridge.”
Puzzled, I answered, “Why?”
“If I told you that, it would be far too easy, wouldn’t it?” he said.
Thinking it would be really easy anyway; I quickly threw the duvet back and jumped out of bed. It was slightly chilly outside the warm nest of my bed, but I could handle it. I stood up and walked across the bedroom, confidently heading for the door. So far so good – with my dad sitting in my room watching with a smile on his face. But as I turned the handle of my bedroom door and headed into the hallway, I was suddenly faced with a long empty corridor, leading to a living room, with the kitchen in the distance – and all that space shrouded in silent darkness. For a 5 year old, this was suddenly a pretty scary undertaking, especially with my dad still sitting in my room, showing no signs of coming with me…. I was expecting a ghost to jump out at me with every step I took… every sound my feet made on the floor felt like something creeping up behind me, it was very nerve-racking. Finally, I made it through and touched the refrigerator door. That wasn’t the end of my suffering of course – I still had to make it back in one piece…
When I finally jumped into bed and got under the covers, I felt like I had conquered the world. In all seriousness, this first triumph was the sweetest I have ever experienced, and as I figured out much later on in life – it was because it was the first time I had been in competition with myself and won. During the course of my life I have felt this feeling more than once, and it was always willpower that earned me that victory.
I think the best metaphor for willpower is muscular. It’s not a body muscle obviously, but something more like a moral-psychological. A physical muscle consists of fibers and when we overload it these fibers tear and so the human body needs time to restore them. That’s why we are warned not to overdo it in the gym. On the plus side, when the body is restored, it actually increases the number of fibers so that the muscle can withstand a slightly higher load in the future. So when the next workout increases the load, and the fibers are torn again, a few more are added in recovery. That’s how human muscle develops strength.
In everyday life of course, we don’t need to be using all our muscles at their full potential all the time for tasks such as picking up a newspaper or pouring a well-earned glass of wine for your significant other – but it’s good to have the muscles there for times we do need them.
With willpower on the other hand, there are challenges we need to overcome every day – that extra chocolate in the box, the voice in your head that tells you to watch TV rather than getting your work finished. So training your willpower really is one of the best uses you can make of your time.
Of course, you may also need it for situations where it can be the deciding factor in big moments in your life like beating a competitor for a promotion or giving that career-changing speech. So try to always keep in mind that the self-control and self-confident efficacy that comes with having willpower are profoundly useful, and profoundly attractive qualities.
In Russian the word ‘will’ has two meanings.
One meaning describes the ability to overcome a difficult situation with power. The second translates as ‘freedom’.
I would say that a person who has willpower extends the boundaries of his personal freedom too. He is able to do things that other people, who don’t have the willpower, can’t do.
I would like to share with you three ways to exercise your willpower and build it up to a level far beyond what you have today.
Just as with any muscular exercise, exercising willpower requires repetition. We begin very slowly with short sessions and a light load, gradually increasing both over time. At these early stages, we don’t want an overload or any accidents.
You do have to understand that some of these exercises might seem ridiculous and silly – the best attitude to this is ‘That’s OK, people lifting weights at the gym also look quite silly.’ At the end of the day, the only person who matters is the person doing the exercises – if you can see and feel the benefit (which I’m confident you will) you’ll quickly stop worrying about how anything looks.
The exercises that I will be sharing with you have proven to be very successful with the participants in my “SelfMadeMan: Personal management and self-motivation” trainings.
When? – first week of training and on a daily basis afterwards.
This is not where the serious training starts, but if you have decided to strengthen your willpower – try to do this warm up exercise every day. Set a reminder on your phone to help you remember to do it.
OK, so throughout the course of the day try to carry out short, fun acts of willpower. Ask yourself – ‘What is the thing I least of all want to do right now?’ or ‘What can’t I be bothered to do today?’ And then go and do them. Get out of a warm bed and put the washing on, or get up from a comfy chair to do twenty sit-ups, or clean up your desk.
The other approach that is also very effective is to use willpower to stop an enjoyable activity. Start watching an exciting movie and turn it off after the 20th minute, or after having tasted a chocolate cake, stop eating it and put it back in the fridge, or at the most crucial moment of a football game – turn it off. In the interests of personal safety however, I do recommend you not to go too far with this – don’t leave a piece of your mother in law’s pie on your plate, or turn off a cartoon you were in the middle of watching with your children – that would be a big mistake.
This is an easy exercise that can definitely be done with a smile on your face but is also very effective.
When ? – second week of training and on a daily basis afterwards.
The growth of your willpower ‘muscle’ will happen when it’s forced to compete with your survival instinct – the one that makes you averse to any pain or danger. It’s the strongest of all human instincts, so if you can learn to manage it with self-control, you can achieve the highest results. You can of course starve yourself, or deprive yourself of water, or walk on hot coals, but that would be too much and possibly harmful and dangerous. I am suggesting a much more mellow option for your training, that will still get the results you want.
This exercise will not only strengthen your willpower, but is also healthy and will increase your energy levels. Every try lasts no longer than a minute and with time, the duration can be increased.
You will need a stopwatch for this. You have to do this every day for 5-10 minutes. Sit down or stand up (whichever is more comfortable), take a deep breath and stop breathing. Hold your breath until you can’t wait any longer, and from that moment on count 5 more seconds and only then allow yourself to breath. Don’t worry, you won’t faint or develop asphyxia – your brain signals that it is deprived of oxygen well in advance. Try to do this exercise three times in a row and with every try, hold your breath longer.
The next day do the same thing, but hold your breath after you’ve let the air out, instead of letting it in. For the following days, alternate the two approaches and aim for a 3 minute hold in each one. While you’re doing this make sure that all the muscles in your body are relaxed and comfortable.
It might also surprise you to know that one side effect of this exercise can be a state of calm mental equilibrium that will last for a couple of hours.
When ? – third week of training and on a daily basis afterwards.
As you’ll have found out if you have tried the previous two exercises, it’s fairly simple to carry out small acts of willpower every now and then. However, to truly get the benefit of willpower, it’s very important to develop the ability to extend your willpower over time – to build habits of self-control that will make your life so much more manageable, and so much more effective in the long run. You start on this by taking control over your local environment. Here’s how you can do it:
In your calendar block off a time for sorting through and tidying up the following spaces:
Get rid of anything you don’t need and organize everything that’s left – so that it’s tidy and neat. Every single object that you haven’t used for ages and are not likely to need again adds to a dead weight of information cluttering your brain capacity and draining your willpower resources.
Here’s where you need the long lasting willpower. Long lasting willpower comes into play with the next step of control – you now need to keep up the tidiness levels you’ve just achieved, but all the time! Once you’re maintaining the habit of keeping your exterior world in an organized, tidy state you can then move on to your ‘inner world’ and:
The first one is the easiest – before doing something, pause briefly and think: is this the best thing to do right now and should I do it like this? Remember, sometimes a five second pause can save years of regret.
The second one is difficult but also manageable and can be learned. Remember how difficult it is not to think about a green monkey when someone suggests that image to you. You can free yourself from unpleasant thoughts by doing something engaging and interesting, and this starts with you actively distracting yourself by planting a different more positive image in your head. The same willpower is also at play in the opposite situation, when you actively want to concentrate on one particular line of thinking. If you need to give something your utmost concentration like this, make sure you are active in creating a quiet atmosphere that allows you to think, and then you just need to exercise your willpower to stay focused on the one thing at a time you choose to think about.
Start by doing this for two hours, slowly increasing the duration until a full day. During this time you don’t allow yourself to complain, whine, sulk or indulge in any other form of negative emotion. Remember that the idea of expressing your negative emotions will somehow “release them” is false and is born out of ignorance. Feeling those emotions and expressing them is the same process. Holding them back is actually neutralizing them. Throughout the course of the exercise you will need to maintain this positive outlook. This does not at all mean that you need to walk around with a huge smile on your face, hugging every passer by. It’s perfectly sufficient to just feel this positivity within yourself.
I guarantee that during the first week of this exercise, it will not be easy – there’ll be moments when you’ll want to curse at a fellow driver for cutting you up, or shout at the obnoxious person who’s just pushed in front of you at the supermarket checkout, but stick with it – these spontaneous flare ups aren’t failures, as long as you keep your overall stable good mood.
Of course, these three exercises aren’t the only ones out there that can build up the willpower muscle,but I have selected the ones that will very quickly make you feel the results. A lot of other things can also train your willpower such as sports, yoga, meditation, walking the dog, answering thousands of questions from your children, pretending to pay attention at a meeting and so on.
Remember however, that just like any other muscle, willpower is not infallible and can sometimes misfire. This effect is called aboulia – a momentary lapse of self-control. It often happens for no reason and all you can do is wait for it to pass. However, a lot of the time it happens as a result of overstraining your willpower. So try to plan your willpower acts accordingly and try to do as many as you can in the morning, when you’re not exhausted. With time you will be able to manage your willpower resources the same way you manage the petrol supply in your car.
Having said that, you should always be aware that there are serious enemies of willpower out there and however strong it might be, it can crumble under their attacks. The two most common ones are – stress and alcohol. Those of you who have quit and then begun to smoke again can agree that a lot of the time the breakdown comes during a big party or after an argument with a spouse. So if you have seriously decided to strengthen your willpower avoid these aggressors for at least the first couple of weeks until your will becomes more powerful.
My profession is giving lectures, training and seminars that all involve speaking, so writing for me is a bit of a challenge and not something I genuinely enjoy doing, so I had to really flex my willpower to finish this article for you, because I believe it will help. Every adult does hundreds of things he or she doesn’t want to do every day and it’s harder if we’re not trained for it, just like with physical activity – it’s more difficult if your muscles aren’t used to exercise every day. So I hope you find these exercises useful and that they will help you on the way to becoming a willpower muscleman.