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Many people believe willpower is fixed and finite. Yet powerful strategies exist that can help us increase it.
Our reserves of self-control and mental focus appear to be shaped by mindsets. And new studies suggest powerful strategies for anyone to build greater willpower – with huge benefits for your health, productivity and happiness.
We all face demanding days that seem designed to test our self-control. Perhaps you are finishing an important project and you have to remain in quiet concentration, without letting your attention slip to other distractions. If you are on a diet, you might have spent the past few hours resisting the cookie jar while the sweet treats silently whisper “eat me”.
In each case, you would have relied on your willpower, which psychologists define as the ability to avoid short-term temptations and override unwanted thoughts, feelings or impulses where some seem to have much greater reserves of it.
Until recently, the prevailing psychological theory proposed that willpower resembled a kind of battery. You might start the day with full strength, but each time you have to control your thoughts, feelings or behaviour, you zap that battery’s energy.
Without the chance to rest and recharge, those resources run dangerously low, making it far harder to maintain your patience and concentration, and to resist temptation. Drawing on the Freudian term for the part of the mind that is responsible for reining in our impulses, the process was known as “ego depletion”.
People with the non-limited view on willpower did not show any signs of ego depletion: they showed no decline in their mental focus after performing a mentally taxing activity
In recent years, some scientists have debated the reliability of the laboratory tests of ego depletion, but Job has also shown that people’s willpower mindsets are linked to many real-life outcomes. She asked university students to complete twice-daily questionnaires about their activities over two non-consecutive weekly periods. As you might expect, some days had much higher demands than others, leading to feelings of exhaustion.
Most of the participants recovered to some degree overnight, but those with the non-limited mindsets actually experienced an increase in their productivity the following day, as if they had been energized by the extra pressure. Once again, it seemed that their belief that “mental stamina fuels itself” had become their reality.
If you already have the non-limited mindset about willpower, these findings might be a cause for self-satisfaction. But what can we do if we have been living under the assumption that our reserves of self-control are easily depleted? Studies suggest that simply learning about this cutting-edge science – through short, accessible texts – can help shift people’s beliefs, at least in the short term. Knowledge, it seems, is power; if so, simply reading this article might have already started to galvanize your mental stamina. You might even enhance this by telling others about what you have learnt.
Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania recently designed a storybook to teach pre-schoolers the idea that exercising willpower can be energizing, rather than exhausting, and that self-control can grow the more we practice it. Children who had heard this story showed greater self-control in a test of “delayed gratification”, in which they were given the chance to forgo a small treat to receive a bigger treat later on, compared to their classmates who had heard another tale.
One useful strategy to change your mindset may be to remember a time when you worked on a mentally demanding task for the pure enjoyment of the activity. There might be a job at work, for example, that others appear to find difficult but you find satisfying. Or maybe it’s a hobby – such as learning a new piece on the piano – that demands intense concentration, yet feels effortless for you. A recent study found that engaging in this kind of recollection naturally shifts people’s beliefs to the non-limited mindset, as they see proof of their own mental stamina.
You mustn’t expect miracles immediately. But with perseverance, you should see your mindset changing, and with it a greater capacity to master your thoughts, feelings and behaviors so that your actions propel you towards your goals. Once you have proved to yourself that your willpower can grow, you may find it easier to then resist other kinds of temptation or distraction.
Want to achieve fulfillment and live life with meaningful moments
Read this article to find out that willpower is continuously exercising and improvable mind muscle
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