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How to build up your willpower muscle

Do you aim to boost your willpower? Here are tips for you.
By Joe Robinson |


Most people don’t willingly take on adversity. We have an ingrained preference for the easy road, known as the law of least effort. Nobel Prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman has detailed a host of ways our brains are primed to opt for the easier, quicker or more impulsive route. 


But starting a business blows up that habit. The entrepreneur chooses to engage in difficult tasks, facing formidable obstacles without letup for a very long time. That requires an antidote to the “easy” reflex—and that antidote is willpower.




Filling up the tank

Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires for the sake of long-term benefits. Entrepreneurs must be well-stocked with willpower to prevail over the difficulties that swarm like mad hornets when one embarks on a self-made path. 


Steely will is usually associated with business moguls or superhero athletes, but the ability is not innate. It’s something we can all build like muscle, say researchers who study the realm of self-regulation. Willpower is the result of how good we are at self-regulating—controlling impulsivity, holding off indulgence and persevering for a reward that may be far down the line. 


 “We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”



Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.



Mind over matter

Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task, or helps you delay gratification so your sweat equity can pay off later. 


Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)



In one study, Stanford’s Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  




Let go of ego

The startup annals are filled with cases of people whose products were considered a joke (King Gillette, inventor of the disposable razor); who were down to their last dime (FedEx founder Frederick Smith, who saved his company by taking his last $5,000 to Las Vegas and turning it into $32,000 at the blackjack table); or who persevered through failure (GoPro founder Nick Woodman). They tapped their willpower to achieve great success. We are equal to the task when we think we are. 


There are ways to overcome setbacks and intractable binds, say educators and researchers: Keep your ego out of it, prime your brain for temptations and have strategies to fortify willpower. 


Keeping ego out of the equation turns down the irrational emotions that can get the better of entrepreneurs marketing their “babies.” Like scientists, who typically have multiple failures that are considered part of the process, entrepreneurs need to stay objective.



Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.


Positive emotions—compassion, gratitude—have also been shown to expand focus and decrease fear. The reduction of fear is important to building willpower, since it cuts stress and the flight reflex to throw in the towel, as well as the chances of making poor decisions based on irrational emotions.


One of the best ways to build optimism is an exercise you can do each night as your head hits the pillow. Think of three things that went well that day, then ask yourself why each occurred. You’ll start recognizing the positive events that previously went unnoticed, and that crowds out the negative. Another tip: Reach out for knowledge and contacts, and connect with entrepreneur forums or networking groups via LinkedIn, Meetup or other resources. The right tips and encouragement can go a long way toward building optimism.



Copyright 2015 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been done by the editor.


Photos from Flickr (Patrick Foto and Dan Vineyard)

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