Willpower – It’s about starting not finishing

willpower-is-about-startingThe concept of willpower shows up when we become aware that our actions are under our own control. As small children we spend a lot of time playing and eating, with small interruptions for mandatory activities like bathing and sleeping. As we grow, we have additional duties, including helping at home, grooming ourselves, and going to school. Life becomes a daily rebalancing of things we want to do, have to do, and actually do.

As we develop our own skills and goals, and take on responsibility for our own lives, the importance of willpower becomes clear. Each of us has goals and special projects we'd like to do, and each of us does things we wish we wouldn't.

Studies at Florida State University by Dr. Roy Baumeister, have shown that willpower is not a personality trait or a skill. It's not something you're born with. There are ways for each of us to have more willpower, and to improve our lives.


It turns out that willpower is much more like a muscle – it can get worn down, but it can also be strengthened. Like muscle, willpower is not as strong when you are tired, so getting enough rest is essential and beneficial. It is also good to start on things when you're feeling rested and fed, not at the end of a long day.

And although it can take some willpower to go for a walk or get to the gym, being more fit actually builds our willpower. It's an example of how a bit of willpower can lead to more willpower!


One of the biggest obstacles to "getting things done" is that the mere idea of finishing something can be daunting. We think about something we want to do, such as learning to play guitar, and we think: "That is going to be so much work! It'll take years to get any good at it."

But willpower isn't about getting things done – willpower is about getting something started.

Despite strong advertising like Nike's "Just do it" campaign, many people are not encouraged by the idea of doing something hard, even if it's important to them.

Instead, it is better for us to "get started" on the things we feel are important.

Once we start on an activity, we usually find that:

a) It's not as hard as we thought.
b) We like to learn things and to do things!
c) We can enjoy the process. We can enjoy the moment.
d) We feel good about ourselves.

By just starting on something we want or need to do, we make this moment better, and we make our future better.

our-culture-is-distracting-us-from-our-goalsOur culture has a lot of distractions. Opportunities to sit around, eat and be entertained are all around us. And the marketing machine is working around the clock to sell you stuff that usually has nothing to do with your personal goals.

While it might seem easier to turn on the TV, go shopping, or play a game, most of these activities don't move you forward on your own personal goals. TV might keep you from being bored, but it can reduce your willpower. It's actually better to be bored, since boredom is a fantastic motivator. Boredom builds willpower!

be-kind-to-yourselfBut it is also important to be kind to yourself when your willpower is low.

Research has found that people who are hard on themselves actually reduce their own willpower, temporarily. They tend to repeat the same pattern of giving up sooner, getting angry at themselves, feeling they can't do it, and settle for a quick and easy treat.

Instead, give yourself a break! If you want a snack before you start on a task, then try that. If something doesn't go well, don't be hard on yourself – try it a different way, try it later, ask for help, or just talk about how you feel with a friend. Don't throw your hands up and say you can't do it, because you know you can – maybe just not at this instant or in this particular way. If you are trying then feel good about that, even if you don't feel you are making progress.

friends-can-encourage-youFriends can encourage you, and help get you over the bumps in the road. Life is not something we're supposed to do on our own – we are built for community, and for sharing. Talking with others can give us encouragement, new ideas, and recharge our willpower muscles.

There are things you want to do with your life – things that are important to you.

Your time is here, and it's saying: "It's time to get started!"

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Some extra links about Willpower

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, has a blog in Psychology Today, called The Science of Willpower.

Here is a summary of some of Kelly McGonigal's work, and her recent book, "The Willpower Instinct".