Willpower: The More You Use It The Stronger It Gets!
by Sam Rodney-Hudson


We make hundreds of choices daily. A healthier you depends upon your ability to make certain choices on a regular basis. What time to wake up, whether or not to press snooze, how long to stay in the shower, the list is endless…. What if we could work out how the brain makes those choices? Or manipulate our motivations? Or actually increase our willpower?

Well Kelly McGonigal believes we can. McGonigal is the author of ‘The Upside of Stress’ and ‘The Willpower Instinct’, lecturer at Stanford University, and she now delivers a ‘Science of Willpower’ course online.

I was quick to accept when Siobhan suggested I attend the course. Kelly is knowledgeable, engaging and very ‘user friendly’, bringing behavioural science and decades of health psychology experiments to the self-improvement table.

‘Delayed gratification’ has a long social experiment history, the most famous being with four year olds and Oreo cookies, and regularly concludes that willpower and self-control predict success later in life. Thankfully the results are just as positive if you develop this skill at a later stage.

“Willpower is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets.”

It’s comforting to know that willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it gets, and your robust willpower muscle can come in handy whenever self-control is required. This theory supports the very effective ‘small steps’ approach to changing habits.

Self-control doesn’t mean being unhappy now and happy later, it’s looking at the bigger picture and balancing both. Long-term well-being vs short-term comfort, reminds you that you are not denying yourself. You are simply, at that moment in time, taking a different path to pleasure.

Another concept underpinning the willpower instinct is identifying the competing selves. This acknowledges that ‘giving in’ to the donut is just as much ‘you’ as the person who decided to eat healthy, only with different motivations. Understanding what motivates both behaviours and also when they are strongest, gives them less power. Connecting with the version of you that wants the change, links you emotionally with your goal, and biases you to making the choice of that ‘self’. Taking it one step further, imagine your future self, and connect with the person that is affected by the decisions you make today.

Some basic tools to assist laying the foundations for these changes are already making headlines, and there’s a reason for that. They work.

Practicing mindfulness, self-care, gratitude and especially self-compassion give us awareness, empathy and love. This is especially important if we don’t feel like we get those things from anywhere else.

Making your goals social provides accountability, as well as that all-important support along the way. Support from others that are going through similar experiences to you is invaluable, it helps you deal with failure, gives you courage to keep going and provides a forum in which to celebrate your successes.

“What lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do.” Aristotle

With all this knowledge and lots of other behaviour changes under my belt you’d think it would be easy to change anything I choose – right?

An essential part of the course is your very own willpower challenge. My biggest challenge in life is not going to bed early enough, it’s familial, it’s cultural, it’s fun, it’s the only time I have to myself. I have so many excuses, but with two children, burning the candle at both ends is not good for mind, body, soul or the ever-deepening wrinkles.

So I set about to put Kelly’s theories into practice. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d wake up before the kids!!

The first tool I needed was self-compassion, this really wasn’t so easy and I needed all the forgiveness I could get. I kidded myself with articles that needed reading, a second episode of that addictive mini series, even crosswords till my eyes were blurry. When I got woken in the morning, bleary eyed and croaky my resolve returned: Tonight, I will go to bed early.

This was always going to be a tough nut to crack, I already practice mindfulness and have a healthy level of self-compassion. From what Kelly said I have the foundations, but have I chosen the right challenge, is it too big? Is it something I want to do or something I should do? I had to delve very deep to find my motivations for going to bed early. All the classic tactics were in full swing deflection, resentment, avoidance.

‘Choice Points’ came up and I made a list of moments where I could change the actions I took, wipe my slate clean and change the ultimate outcome of staying up late. When I first heard about ‘Surfing the Urge’ I figured it probably wouldn’t relate to me, but here’s where I was once again wrong. ‘Surfing the Urge’ is the practice of knowing that the sensation of really wanting to do something will pass relatively quickly.

It’s about feeling all the sensations whilst telling and believing yourself you will feel differently soon. I needed to surf the urge to make the right decision at those choice points.

Needless to say my challenge was a journey of self-discovery and the mere act of putting these theories and exercises into practice was both exhausting and liberating. My future self is proud but I still have a way to go.

Kelly McGonigal’s ‘Willpower Instinct’ compliments other behavioural therapies, and addresses challenging areas of our lives, through understanding ourselves, setting the scene for success and taking those achievable, ‘small steps’ to change. Increasing control over the choices we make has profound effects on our emotional stability and sense of personal responsibility.

What will your willpower challenge be?