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About willpower

Jann Freed is a leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group.

Have you ever said to yourself: I wish I had more self-control or willpower? Life is complicated and presents us with many temptations. Having more control over how we make decisions regarding relationships, health and financial security would likely improve the quality of our life. Research shows the two personal qualities that are said to predict “positive outcomes” in life consistently tend to be intelligence and self-control. While intelligence or IQ is hard to increase, researchers have discovered how to improve self-control. In their book "Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength," Roy Baumeister and John Tierney share research that supports improving willpower "is the surest way to a better life.”

Much is written about the value of the mindfulness movement (being present, paying attention, being focused) in leadership and business and medical arenas. Google, Target, General Mills and Intel are a few of the companies that have had mindfulness programs for several years. Based on mindfulness research, managers are realizing that allowing time for reflection, creativity and resilience has a positive impact on employees through stress reduction that results in improved productivity.

However, people forget about willpower, and this is probably the most underutilized human talent. Based on research by Baumeister and Tierney, willpower is something that can be actively trained, harvested and used in whatever direction we choose. Their research concluded:

  • We have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it.
  • We use the same stock of willpower for all manners of tasks (work, diet, exercise, attitude).

In fact, Baumeister and Tierney divide the uses of willpower into four broad categories: control of thoughts, control of emotions, impulse control, and performance control or focusing energy on the task at hand. One way to build willpower is the use of “bright lines.” These are rules that are clear, simple and nonnegotiable. You know when you have crossed a bright line. “Once you’ve committed to following a bright line rule, your present self can feel confident that your future self will observe it, too. … Your belief becomes a form of self-control: a self-fulfilling mandate. I think I won’t, therefore I don’t.” This is a way to develop discipline in making decisions in life and in work. Life is complicated, and following these rules can simplify your life. Ironically, the more we follow bright line rules, the less energy it takes and the more willpower we have to use in other ways.

26938Most people think that change happens gradually in life, but change does not happen gradually. You build up momentum to make a change that happens in a moment. You gather enough energy and evidence to support making that change. The actual change itself is instantaneous.  

I discovered that the awareness of mindfulness helped me build willpower as a tool that is transforming my life. From my research, I learned the value of having a practice that quiets the mind at the same time that it builds strength, enables flexibility and works on balance. Since my book was published in 2013 ("Leading With Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts"), I have been committed to practicing yoga six times a week. While I have learned many things from my instructor, James Miller, it is his willpower I find most inspiring.  

Miller created Adamantine Yoga™, in which the books "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and "Willpower" are the psychology and foundation behind his approach. “While 'Flow' is about optimal experience, 'Willpower' taught me the philosophy to empower people to activate the psychology of optimal experience.” Miller often reminds me that “every moment we have the power to make a decision — choice. We can go one way or another.”

I realized my yoga practice would improve if I lost weight, and this has never been easy for me to do. But being mindful of what I was eating by paying attention was worth it. Miller recommended The Whole 30 Program based on “bright line rules.” Cut out grains, dairy, legumes and sugar for 30 days as a way to push the “reset” button for the body to determine how various foods are having an impact. I completed this program, achieved my goal and realized the power of willpower by following clear rules. It took less energy to make healthy dietary decisions.

When we have a stressful day and are committed to eating and drinking in a certain way, it is harder to use our willpower to make the right decisions. While we know this intuitively, now there is research to support this. People who use bright line rules to help guide their lives use less willpower in doing so. When willpower is depleted, frustrations and stress increase, which have negative consequences on personal decisions and relationships.  

It is easy to think that some people naturally have more self-control than others. But now we know everyone can improve their willpower in order to improve their quality of life. Additionally, one of the most interesting research findings in "Willpower" is this: “People with stronger willpower are more altruistic. They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go. … Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”


I enjoyed your thoughts! I've been listening to an e-book borrowed from the Clive Library called "Eat Move Sleep" and your focus on willpower relates very well. I recommend this book as it outlines very achievable steps backed by research to help a person make better choices. One example: the mood boost that comes from exercise can be wasted if you wait until evening to work out, because you may sleep right through the boost. More information is available at http://www.eatmovesleep.org/.

Thanks Susan for your comments and book recommendation. It sounds interesting. /'other book on my reading list is The Power of Habit. We are our habits regarding all aspects of life --eat, move, sleep-and how we utlize our willpower. Thanks!

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