What is Willpower and How Should You Use It?

Every year, The American Psychological Association releases the results of the Stress in America Survey. Regularly, respondents cite lack of willpower as the reason they fail to follow through on a healthier lifestyle and don’t meet their financial goals.
So, what is this mysterious trait known as willpower and how do we increase it?
For many, it’s an umbrella term covering concepts like determination, drive, resolve, self-discipline, and self-control.
Personally, I like the definition given by English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.
“The ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.”
Now that we’ve defined willpower we’ll look at three concrete tactics you can implement to develop this trait and set yourself apart with enhanced impulse control.
Do less with more
“I don’t do more, but less, than other people. They do all their work three times over: once in anticipation, once in actuality, once in rumination. I do mine in actuality alone, doing it once instead of three times.”
-Henry Ward Beecher
An easy way to increase your willpower is to remove or complete the obligations in your life that aren’t relevant to your ultimate vision or career goals.
To accomplish this I suggest the mind sweep method popularized by author David Allen.
The mind sweep is an overarching view of everything that’s on your mind and distracting your focus in both your personal and professional life.
A list of common distractions you can review during a mind sweep are:

  • Projects started, not completed
  • Projects that need to be started
  • Commitments and promises to boss, partners, colleagues, customers, etc.
  • Communications to make (calls, messages, emails, etc.)
  • Decisions to be made

Invest some time and attention into building a comprehensive inventory of your existence.
Then complete anything that takes less than 2 minutes immediately.
Eventually, you’ll be left with the bigger more complex projects that are more relevant to your long-term goals.
The advantage to a regular cleansing of distraction and obligations is the unwavering focus you can now apply to the bigger goals in your life without the stress that you’ve forgotten something or that someone is waiting on you.
Now that we’ve removed drains on willpower and are left with the more complex projects it’s time to look at another crucial tactic for growing your willpower.
Developing persistence
“Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”
-Martin E.P. Seligman Learned Optimism
It’s difficult to do hard, challenging things because we have a natural impulse to avoid failure.
Persistence is a key tactic in your pursuit of building willpower because the impulse to quit in the face of criticism or difficulty is so common.
A great obstacle to developing your persistence is the mindset that any plan or project you come up with will go perfectly.
Unfortunately, this will rarely happen.
In fact, if you aren’t occasionally facing resistance or making small mistakes this is a sign to try some more complex work.
Either way, we have to remember that to improve we must keep playing and that the more we play the closer we’ll get to winning.
Since we’ve committed to taking action in the face of difficult problems or mistakes it’s important to have a tactic in place to act rapidly and quickly when problems do arise.
Relentless Solution Focus
“When people focus on problems, their problems actually grow and reproduce. When you train your mind to focus on solutions, guess what expands?”
-Dr. Jason Selk Executive Toughness
We have a natural tendency to focus on problems over solutions. According to expectancy theory what we focus on expands and our thoughts and behaviors shape the way we think.
In short, by focusing on the problem we make it bigger and the bigger we think the problem is the more willpower we have to use up to tackle it.
Instead, we can use a small amount of willpower to shift into a relentless solution-focused mindset within the first 60 seconds of encountering any difficulty or mistake.
To do this all we have to do is create a habit of asking the following question any time we start thinking about a problem.
What is one thing I can do right now that will make this better?
Just identifying the possibility of a solution is a vast improvement as it disrupts negative cycles of thought.
Clearly, we’ll need to spend energy developing an actual solution and ultimately we still need to execute on that solution but the first step is always realizing that something can be done to make any situation better.
Here are a few guidelines to help you along the way

  1. Incremental optimization
  2. Improvement does not mean perfection. Often the urge to find a complete resolution creates paralysis.
  3. Embrace relentlessness
  4. Never go more than 60 seconds with a problem-centric mindset. It takes practice, but the habit of rapidly shifting your mindset from its default setting of dwelling on problems to the more productive solution oriented frame is crucial to building willpower.
  5. Utilize the power of questions
  6. Avoid the impulse to accept the first answer that comes to you. As long as we keep a solution oriented mindset it’s not a drain on willpower to reflect on a few different options. Reflect on solutions, but avoid ruminating on problems

Now that we’ve discussed how doing less with more can increase your willpower, why persistence is a key trait to develop, and the importance of shifting our mindset from problem to solution focused it’s important to find clarity on how you’ll use this newly developed drive.
In short, where are you putting your motivational focus?
I’d like to challenge you to identify some high hanging fruitsa moon shot, and some big ideas.
Determine the next step and do it!
Good luck and don’t stop.