Willpower has returned! Thanks to the research of Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney and the publication of their recent book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, willpower is shaking its reputation as a character flaw and being studied as a strength to be developed.
The transition from studying why people lack willpower to studying how willpower can be developed is yet another contribution from the field of Positive Psychology. This shift is not unlike the shift that grounded the field – from studying why depressed people are depressed to studying how people experience happiness and mental well-being in their lives. It is also an excellent example how the perspective brought to a subject or experience changes the subject or experience. Where you put your focus is where you get your result.
Baumeister and Tierney show how willpower is correlated to achieving goals, how motivation is tied to willpower, and how success in general is associated with being motivated to sustain your willpower to achieve your goals. So how do you build willpower? Take steps to keep yourself motivated PRIOR to depleting your power to stay motivated. This tactic is similar to the evidence on how to become more resilient. Build steps into your goal that do nothing but build and support your ability to stay motivated.
Example Goal: A real estate agent wants to sign five new listings. The task requires lots of cold calling, attending meetings, making untold contacts. Those tasks take a lot of physical and mental energy to complete.
Tactic to build and strengthen ability to stay motivated: 20 minutes of meditation once or twice a day.
The tactic may appear counter intuitive, yet the evidence is overwhelming. At a minimum, some form of meditation break would stop the negative thoughts that may have crept in during a day of calls, meeting and greeting without a specific result for your efforts. Stopping to calm your thoughts would actually feed your ability to stay motivated to keep doing the things you need to eventually reach your goal.
The real goal is avoiding what Baumeister and Tierney define as ‘ego-depletion’ which includes self-control. The more decisions you make in a day, the greater the chance you will deplete your ability to maintain self-control (it is why you can feel tired after a networking event – you kept ‘deciding’ who to approach, who not to approach, who to avoid, who not to avoid – and why you may drink too much during or after the event!).
Ego-depletion in a business social setting for an introvert may look like withdrawal and lack of energy to engage new contacts. Ego-depletion in an extrovert in the same situation may look like over-talking, too aggressive and lacking social filters (that might be the case for both introverts and extroverts.
Bottom line: Build and nurture your willpower throughout the day to perform at your highest levels and increase your likelihood of achieving your goals.