The topic of willpower fascinates me, and is one that comes up often in my line of work. Looking into the science of it – where it supposedly exists in the brain, and what we can do to harness more of it – I’ve been mesmerized by the idea of its capacity. How does one push through hard conditions? Why is it strong some days and weak on others? Can we expand our supposed willpower limits so we can achieve/experience more of what’s desired and live the “good” life?
But are there even real limits?
Sure feels like it. When the going gets tough and/or we’re all worn out we tell ourselves: “It won’t work… I can’t… There’s just not enough reserve… Not this time… Tomorrow.”
What prompts us to falter? Is there a fixed capacity that’s all used up? Is it really that we’re just weak and undisciplined?
Believe it or not, no. These limits are imaginary. What you’re living and experiencing has nothing to do with a fixed capacity within you. (Hear me: no, you’re not inherently weak.) Turns out, it’s a matter of what you’re telling yourself. It’s all completely based on what you BELIEVE to be true. The science is indicating that this is so*.
Imagine this, you come home after a long day of exhausting work (physically, emotionally, mentally). You’re tired, hungry and depleted. You want nothing more than to sit on the couch and zone out on mindless TV and munch on potato chips. But you’ve pledged to cut the crap from your diet because you’re fed up with feeling so… well, crappy. You promised yourself last night before bed, “Ok, tomorrow, I’ll stop eating this stuff. Really, truly, tomorrow I’ll be good.” But nowhere you are: hungry, exhausted and not willing to exert any more resistance because this day officially took it out of you. All you’re seeing is… CHIPS. All you’re thinking is… “I NEED THEM.” And the next thing you know, half the bag is gone.
Neuroscientist Timothy Noakes of the University of Cape Town wanted to test that there is truly a neurological and energetic capacity we bump up against when we falter in willpower. The implication of his findings changes everything.
The scientists used Ironman Triathletes as their subjects (because who better to study than those doing super-human feats.) The researchers were looking to see if their supposed limits were unique and extraordinary, allowing them to achieve feats not typical of the average person. What they found was that when they hit “the wall” of exhaustion, the one where the rest of us say, “That’s it! Done! No more for me!!” they meet that physical fatigue as nothing more than sensations that don’t mean anything.
Under these extreme sensations, the brain screams DONE!” (Understandably so, it’s primary job is to keep us alive.) The brain’s automatic mapping of sensation to meaning forces us, average folks, to stop and BELIEVE physical exhaustion means there’s literally nothing left so… Stop!!
But hold up, what keeps those Ironman Triathletes going despite “the wall?” Do they have a secret us average folks don’t?
Yep. And it’s this…
“I AM doing it…”
The difference between me and that triathlete is that when that sensation hits, I tell myself DONE! As soon as I do, the reality of “done” seeps in, that thought triggers another thought like it and all of a sudden, those blisters feel like volcanos, I notice excruciating chafing under my arms, my knees feel like 100-pound weights. My body stops, I stop, and I come to believe it’s because my body is done.
That triathlete? She has conditioned herself to recognize the sensation and know that it’s a trick played on the body by the mind. She refuses to give it any air time. In doing so, her awareness stays focused on that of her choosing: “I AM doing this” and those pains that would compel any conscious being to stop, aren’t recognized as reasons to stop.
Now, how does real muscle relate to the metaphorical muscle of willpower? As a result of this study, Dr. Hoakes said: “Fatigue should no longer be considered a physical event but rather a sensation or emotion.”
Read: It’s a feeling manufactured by the brain to get us to stop, in the same way, it does with anxiety to keep us from danger.
And aha!! There it is… this willpower muscle isn’t really a muscle. How much willpower you exert depends on how you interpret signals/sensations/emotions/feedback- and what you tell yourself as a result.
Here’s the transformative trick:
(And I do mean transformative.)
Change every single statement you think, feel, and speak about what you want to do to:
Notice how all these statements provide the option that it might not happen. Why give that unfortunate avenue any energy if you care that much about what’s wanted?? Instead, commit!
I put this to practice at the end of last year and holy smokes, EVERYTHING took off. I shared this with a few friends at the beginning of this year and phenomenal results for them as well. Really incredible.
Try it out! I promise that what you’ll find is that these uncomfortable emotions: anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, weakness, inadequacy – are simply sensations the brain automatically maps to “Halt! Think twice. Do NOT PASS GO!” because to the brain, anxiety is anxiety no matter what the reason. It can’t tell the difference between a hunger tiger and a request to present to a live studio audience. But YOU can. You have to be the one to override that autonomic response and go forth. The capacity, the know-how, the passion, energy, the motivation – it’s all there within you. Don’t get tricked into believing it was all zapped away by [work, boss, kids, bank statements, low test scores… fill in the blank].
Now, there’s OBVIOUSLY a difference what’s difficult and what’s impossible. “Limits” could represent either so use common sense… this won’t work for deadlifting 200 pounds having never trained a day in your life, or becoming a heart surgeon without the necessary training. If you’ve read this far then I trust you’re able to extrapolate these findings onto all those things on your want list that if you were to put forth the effort and perseverance and make it happen by continually affirming: “I AM doing this,” it would make all the difference in the world.
Try it out and let me know how it goes. What stagnant dreams are you ready to bring to life? Leave me a comment below and/or share with a friend you know could use a willpower boost.
Happily solidering on,
*Note: To state that science is pointing to the fact that our beliefs determine outcomes is a big claim. If you’re inspired, intrigued or even critical of this idea, please refer to “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, the book that inspired this post. It’s fascinating reading kicked me into some serious action.
Amy Eliza Wong is a life coach, writer, and speaker in San Francisco and Sacramento, CA committed to helping people figure out what makes them tick so they can finally live with joy and real purpose. Learn more about working with her.