Definition of Willpower (merriam-websters.com)
1. The ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult.
First Known Use of willpower – 1858
The definition of willpower is the ability to control yourself. When you first think about, ‘the ability to control yourself,’ you think, or at least I do, “no problem, why couldn’t I control myself?”
Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy, is it. For some people it may be, and although I scored high on one of the willpower assessments, I struggle with controlling my actions in certain aspects of life. It mainly deals with doing the activities that I really don’t like to do, or chose not to do.
When you think about it, willpower is a muscle, just like decision making. If you have to make a lot of decisions throughout the day by the time evening comes you can’t even decide what to have for supper. This is also when our willpower muscle is getting tired and we may struggle to stick to our diet and we convince ourselves that since we had a salad for lunch and a mile walk today, we make an easy decision and eat a frozen pizza for supper instead of taking the time to cook something healthy.
James Allen wrote about training the will in his book, The Mastery of Destiny (1909), “without strength of mind, nothing worthy of accomplishment can be done, and the cultivation of that steadfastness and stability of character which is commonly called “willpower” is one of the foremost duties of person. All you have to do is conquer the weak indulgences that make you a slave.”
Do you have the willpower, or strength of mind, to stay off social media for an hour and write, or exercise, or read a book? We tend to do what comes easy, and why not, it’s easy. If that’s the way you attack life, then great. But if you want to achieve your goals and live a purposeful life you need to conquer your weaknesses and build your willpower muscle.
Although recent research by Professor Inzlicht from the University of Toronto claims that willpower isn’t a finite source but acts more like an emotion. If willpower is an emotion then we should be able to control it, which is easier if it’s something that we actually like to do. If we “will ourselves to do something,” is it the same as changing our attitude about something?
Whether you believe willpower is a muscle or is more like an emotion, James Allen wrote that the whole science of will cultivation is embodied in the following seven rules:
1. Break off bad habits – The first step is to break away from bad habits. This is no easy task. It demands putting forth great efforts, or a succession of efforts, and it is by such efforts that the will can alone be invigorated and fortified. If one refuses to take the first step, they cannot increase their willpower, for by submitting to a bad habit, because of the immediate pleasure which it affords; one forfeits the right to rule over themselves. The person who avoids self-discipline, and looks about for some “secret” for gaining willpower at the expenditure of little or no effort on their part, is deceiving themselves, and is weakening the willpower they already have.
2. Form good habits – The increased strength of will gained by success in overcoming bad habits enables you to initiate good habits, while the conquering of a bad habit requires merely strength of purpose, the forming of a new one necessitates the intelligent direction of purpose. To do this, a person must be mentally active and energetic, and must keep a constant watch upon themselves. As a person succeeds in perfecting themselves in the second rule, it will not be very difficult for them to observe the third, that of giving scrupulous attention to the duty of the present moment.
3. Give scrupulous attention to the duty of the present moment – Thoroughness is a step in the development of the will which cannot be passed over. Sloppy work is an indication of weakness. Perfection should be aimed at, even in the smallest task. By not dividing the mind, but giving the whole attention to each separate task as it presents itself, singleness of purpose and intense concentration of mind are gradually gained.
4. Do vigorously, and at once, whatever has to be done – Idleness and a strong will cannot go together, and procrastination is a total barrier to the acquisition of purposeful action. Nothing should be “put off” until another time, not even for a few minutes. That which ought to be done now should be done now. This seems to be a little thing, but it is very important, it leads to strength, success, and peace.
5. Live by rule – The person who is to develop a strong will must also live by certain fixed rules. They must not blindly gratify their passions and impulses, but must control them. They should live according to principle, and not according to passion. What food do you want to eat, how much exercise do you want to do weekly? Set your expectations, write your own set of “Living Rules,” and then hold yourself accountable to the rules.
6. Control the tongue – The sixth rule to controlling the tongue must be practiced until one has perfect command of their speech, so that they utter nothing in peevishness, anger, irritability, or with evil intent. The person of strong will does not allow their tongue to run thoughtlessly and without check.
7. Control the mind – All these six rules, if faithfully practiced, will lead up to the seventh, which is the most important of them all, controlling the mind. Self-control is the most essential thing in life, yet least understood. The person who patiently practices the previous six rules listed, will learn, by their own experience and efforts, how to control and train their mind.
These seven willpower building practices, taken directly from The Mastery of Destiny, written in 1909, when studied and practiced, will help you achieve your goals, purpose and as the title says, your destiny. Some believe that James Allen started the self-improvement movement and with principles like this we can understand why. I would highly recommend grabbing the book, Mind is Master, The Complete James Allen Treasury, it contains 20 different books and is one of my first references for insightful reading.
With the New Year upon us, maybe we should just set a goal to build our willpower. It’s the corner stone to achievement.