Just like strengthening any part of your body, building your mental muscle takes training.
You see it all the time on social media: quotes like “You are stronger than you realise” and “Your body can stand almost anything – it’s your mind that you have to convince.” As cliche as they may sound, there’s truth in those mantras. Science shows that we may give up during a workout because we think our bodies can’t handle it. It’s that moment when your muscles are burning and your lungs feel like they’re on fire. You tell yourself, “I just need a quick break”, allowing your legs to slow and heart rate to drop. Only afterward do you realise that you probably could have pushed through the doubts.
That right there is proof that your willpower muscle could benefit from additional training. It’s just like any physical muscle – neglecting to use it causes atrophy, which makes it that much harder to call upon when you actually need it.
“Willpower needs to be trained. The more you have, the more you can overcome mental fatigue and psychological challenges to become a better runner,” says Dr Nathan DeWall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, US, who studies self-regulation.
A hard interval workout isn’t the only time willpower starts to wane, either. It can happen when your late-night snack choice is cake over carrots, or when you decide to binge on a new Netflix show instead of getting the sleep you so desperately need to recover.
The good news is boosting willpower is easier than you think. The following simple tactics will help train your brain to say, “Yes, go!” when your body starts screaming, “Nooo”.
TAKE BABY STEPS
The science behind building any muscle applies to willpower, too – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. But also like a muscle, if you exert too much too soon, you’re likely to run out of gas.
Case in point: Before DeWall was racing 160K events, he was overweight and out of shape. “I used to eat sweets all the time,” he says. “But when I set a goal to run a marathon, my first challenge was to walk past the chocolate aisle. Over time, I incrementally took on harder obstacles.” Had DeWall tried to revamp his entire diet and start training regularly all at once, he says there’s a higher likelihood he would have failed.
That’s why he suggests creating a three-prong plan: define your goals, identify the obstacles to achieve it, and strategise how to overcome those obstacles – and then gradually do so.
“Start with the smallest challenges, as those will help build your confidence and willpower to take on tougher obstacles,” says DeWall. “Eventually, what once seemed hard won’t anymore, and you’ll be ready to move on to more difficult things.”
While it’s easy to brush off every one who’s Marie Kondoing their closet, people who follow the minimalism movement are actually onto something. It’s really hard to be focused on everything at once, says Dr Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, US. “In order to be a maximalist, you’ve got to be a minimalist.”
In other words, if you’re tackling a big goal that you know requires a lot of willpower, do what you can to automate some of your smaller decisions. “Every choice takes mental energy,” says Joyner. “The fewer there are, the better.”
Go after the low-hanging fruit first. If it’s a running goal, designate a specific time to sweat every day so you don’t need to think about it. Then, make getting out the door easy – lay out your gear the night before, and create a training schedule (or hire a coach) to eliminate questions about your workout. That way, all you have to do is execute.
Lastly, rig your environment to cut the need to make hard decisions. Can’t resist those cookies you baked? Gift them. Scrolling through Twitter instead of sleeping? Stash your phone across the room. “You can deliberately design your environment so that it’s not battling against you,” says De-Wall. “When it works in your favour, you can accomplish more.”
The tough part about willpower is that you have to flex its muscle over and over in order for it to truly be successful. Which means that you have to trust that your future self will use willpower, too. A 2009 study found that people who show better self-control do so because they don’t see a disconnect between their current and future selves. When presented with the option of taking a small sum of money now or a large amount later, they chose the latter. Scientists theorise that’s because they saw their future self as the same as – or better than – their present self, so the delay was worth it.
DeWall says the best way to establish this trust with yourself is the same as trusting another person – providing proof. “Every time you overcome an obstacle, that’s evidence that you can make the hard decision,” he explains. “When you know you’ve done hard things in the past, future challenges are no longer threats, and you gain this trust that you can confront them.”