It’s just about time to leave the office for the day and you’ve got a choice to make before you step outside the door. Are you going to put your running shoes on and head straight to the gym? Or are you going to open your to-do list and be persuaded to skip the self-care because you’ve got homework to supervise, groceries to buy and a house to clean? Or maybe you’re tempted to nap? On certain days, one of these choices is going to make more sense than the others. But going to the gym, or wherever you like to move your body, requires the greatest investment of self-regulation.
How we understand willpower is shifting. Willpower is the conscious self-control we use to resist impulses. The prevailing idea in studies of willpower is that our supplies are limited and reduced by fatigue, hunger and stress. Research from the past five years has introduced some new features to this core idea.
Sugar Can Be Motivating
Willpower researchers remain divided on whether or not glucose improves self-control for everyone or just for those who struggle with willpower. There are consistent findings that rinsing the mouth with glucose solution – but not artificially sweetened liquids - can improve performance on tasks requiring self-control. The rinsing doesn’t actually increase glucose in the body but it probably activates reward pathways in the brains of most people. Consider popping a small hard candy in your mouth before making the decision to head to the gym and notice what happens.
Breaks Will Make Marathon Work Sessions More Productive
We used to think taking breaks during the workday to eat, stretch and relax just helped the body cope with the stresses of sitting and focusing for long periods. This is still true but the willpower research demonstrates that these breaks – especially if they include mindfulness exercises - improve focus, attention, self-control and help improve emotional regulation. These traits allow you to work longer and better. If you’re taking extended social-media breaks during work hours or prefer to online shop instead of working on that looming deadline, you might need a proper break that involves some healthy food, movement, quiet time or some human contact. Those social-media and shopping detours represent a break in willpower, but not a true break.
Willpower Can Be Learned
People who are constantly distracted at work either need: a) to find a new job that they love and which brings them greater focus or b) to understand that their willpower can probably be expanded. The willpower-as-muscle metaphor is common in willpower literature because it works. Use it or lose it. To grow your willpower on a specific task, you have to just keep trying to exert conscious self-control time after time. Eventually the specific task becomes totally routine and automated. People that workout every day of their lives understand this automation. They don’t even need to use willpower to get to the gym anymore because their workout willpower muscles are so huge. The same goes for early risers, daily writers, runner, flossers, meditators and people who pray.
The way you think about your capacity and your willpower matters a great deal in your ability to exercise that willpower. By persistently doing a specific task that you know will help you perform better in work or life, you build up your belief that you are capable of that task. This belief in yourself is called self-efficacy. The excellence lies in the doing and in your beliefs about your ability to keep doing. If we stick with the willpower-as-muscle example, we acknowledge that even the largest muscles have limits. But an April 2015 study from researchers at the University of Zurich showed that university students who believed their willpower was limited were more likely to procrastinate and get poor grades. Those who believed that willpower was unlimited scored better grades and procrastinated less. The same research team, in 2013, found that those who believed willpower was limited were also more reliant on glucose to restore their self-control after mentally strenuous tasks. Whether or not glucose is the chicken or the egg, a sense of self-efficacy combined with a mindset of abundant willpower appears to really matter for success in life and work.
Maybe You Can Have It All
If you can make movement an automated part of your day, then you won’t spend any time at all contemplating whether or not you should go to the gym and take care of yourself. You’ll have huge willpower and a deep awareness of your own capacity for getting in a workout every day. You know you can fit in an effective workout, a shower and a quick dress in 45 minutes because you’ve done it a million times before. After 45 minutes, you’ll still have plenty of time to hit up the grocery store or Farmer’s Market, check in on homework and maybe tackle one room in the house for cleaning. And you’ll do so with an improved mood, a sense of accomplishment and the feeling your own needs aren’t sidelined for those of your household. The belief in the practice, when it comes to willpower, is as important as the practice itself.