– the one thing we all wish we had more of 😉
Regardless of whether you are a professional athlete or a normal guy watching Netflix & Co. in your spare time. We all had these moments in which we wished we had more self-discipline.
So please think of the last time you missed any kind of goal because you’ve experienced a lack of willpower. It sucks, right?
But don’t worry!
This whole post is made for you 😉
In the next 10 min, we will get to know what willpower actually is, how it works and why it works exactly that way.
But most important: Hopefully you will understand yourself a bit more.
Before we start I want to apologize for being a little bit clipped at some topics. Willpower and human psychology in general aren’t that simple. So in order to avoid writing a whole book we cannot deep dive into every subtopic. Sad – I know.
But for now let’s start and take a look at the actual definition of willpower:
Normally willpower is defined as
“Control of one’s impulses and actions”.
It’s all about the ability to resist our short-term desires and impulses. The power to look over these urges and apply a thoughtful focus on bigger dimensions.
Willpower is basically the power to make consciously reasonable decisions and stick to these in the long-term.
Willpower does fail
But when do we use or need our willpower?
At first, our willpower isn’t challenged in drastic situations like an immediate thread towards our personal life. In a live-or-die scenario we are clear about what we want – simply to survive. And I would bet, we are quite good to mobilize our energy and will in such case. In fact this isn’t a thing we think about. We as humans would just try to survive without bothering about our strength of will.
Our willpower really gets challenged the more abstract a thing, goal or even a thread becomes.
As an example:
The overweight smoker knows, smoking and eating fast food are taking serious damage to his body and that he even risks dying at a young age.
But he still keeps smoking and eating shit.
This obviously weird behavior leads to our first discovery:
Willpower seems to be inconsistent.
So why is that?
Why are we harming ourselves?
Why aren’t we just perfect beings with an endless amount of self-discipline?
Well the answer is evolution.
Our biological advantage
The main aspect of evolution is natural selection and this is “the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring”.
Important is: This doesn’t produces perfect organisms. It just guarantees that the best will make it through. You don’t have to be the perfect being. To be the best is already enough to survive and evolve.
And this is what our ancestors did over a quite long period of time.
So in order to understand ourselves we have to jump back right to the beginning:
Around 2.1 billion years ago the Homo habilis evolved. This major evolution will lead eventually to the Birth of the Homo sapiens. From this we developed towards the most dominant species and started to claim this planet ours – you know the rest of this story 😉
The questions which remain: What changed over these years? What makes us such different from our friends and ancestors? What separates us from the apes?
It turns out, the ability to make long-term based decisions is our huge advantage. We somehow managed it to be able to restrain our immediate impulses and focus on bigger dimensions. In short: We developed a kind of willpower.
The human brain gets an upgrade
This new power is the result of the brain’s evolution. We as humans developed an extraordinary strong prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain’s frontal lobe – positioned right behind the forehead. It basically allows us to think and decide in a rational way.
This area of our brain is often related to our conscious self. Here is where we make and go after long-term decisions. When we think logically, plan or make use of our willpower the prefrontal cortex is quite active.
Seems quite nice, right?
The core problem is: the prefrontal cortex didn’t replaced our primitive urges and impulses. It’s more like a quite nice extension which we’ve gotten over time.
As an result a permanent coexistence between our older and primitive mind and the new more rational thinking mind occurs. This leads to the main conflict we talked about in the beginning. But this hasn’t to be just bad…
Fight or Flight response
In fact these two sides of our brains were very helpful in a matter of pure survival several years ago.
Imagine you are a caveman living thousands of years ago. Your’re walking through the woods searching for some sweet berries. Suddenly a giant bear builds up right in front of you. You know this isn’t a friendly teddy bear 🧸 – this is real!
The bear steps towards you and you just have one single thought in your mind: I have to survive!
Your body increases blood flow, your heart rate speeds up and your muscles tenses. Adrenaline floods your whole body. You are ready to run or fight for your pure survival.
Psychologists call this state Fight or Flight response. Your body basically mobilises all available energy into your muscles and the vital organs. Only with one goal: To face the threat and survive.
In order to save energy wherever it’s not necessary for survival, the human body also redirects energy from the prefrontal cortex. This is because our brains especially the prefrontal cortex are quite energy expensive. But this means in such cases we are unable to use our rational & long-term focused mind capacity.
This take-over of our primitive selfs is already caused in smaller dimensions whenever we are in stress. So sadly you can’t avoid this simply by avoiding dangerous animals ;D
Willpower gets challenged by our modern society
A few thousand years ago this take-over was totally fine. Our ancestors didn’t had to think about long-term goals. They didn’t had to bother about a good graduation, the next job application or a financial provision.
But today things got quite abstract. A lot of our goals actually just focus on theoretical concepts like scores, grades or money.
I mean think about it:
We can’t eat good grades or defend ourselves with a perfect degree against a wild animal 🐅
Luckily we don’t have to do this. But the point is our society has gotten far to abstract for our “simple” defense systems. Originally willpower and rational thinking were nice things. They brought us an awesome advantage, but today our society fully relies on our ability to imagine abstract concepts and to seek long-term goals.
This is the challenge we have to face these days.
Please think about the phrase:
“One brain, but two minds.”
We talked about this before. The one mind is impulsive & primitive – originated thousands of years ago.
Our worlds keeps getting better in stimulating these side of ourselves. Everyday advertising firms tell us what we need – right now. And distractions are everywhere. Especially in the online world.
Consider YouTube for example. Whenever you are on YouTube there is a fancy list of personalized video recommendations with attention craving thumbnails and titles. Lately YouTube even added moving previews of the videos.
In short a bunge of things which are aimed to trigger our impulsive mind.
And this is all because they make money when we we decide to spend our money or attention to their products. But this is the way capitalism works and this hasn’t to be just bad.
So what is with the other side – our glorious long-term thinking mind?
At this point it is important to understand that the goal isn’t to deny all kinds of short-term satisfaction or happiness. It’s all about making a conscious choice each time whether we sit back and relax for a few hours or pursue our goals – maybe in the gym or whatever.
Relaxing for example is quite nice and even important for mental and physical regeneration. But it’s the amount of time we spend relaxing that matters.
Basically it’s all about consciousness and awareness. In fact awareness is the crucial step to self discipline.
To observe and understand is the first step to positive change
Ok, these was quite a lot of informations.
I hope you got an deeper understanding of your own willpower. I friendly invite you to leave a comment with your thoughts under this blog.