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willpower improvement


page short(er)link: http://tantek.com/w/Willpowerimprovement


A subproject of ProductivityImprovement.


Willpower is likely the most important factor for productivity.

It is one of several abilities that can be improved through deliberate practice.


The 2008-04-02 New York Times article Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind (via Matthew Levine's tweet) documents several effects, and recommendations.


willpower capacity

From the article:

  • "the brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others"
  • "brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals"
  • "people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task."


depleting willpower

More quotes from the article:

"activities that deplete willpower include"

  • "resisting food or drink"
  • "suppressing emotional responses"
  • "restraining aggressive or sexual impulses"
  • "taking exams"
  • "trying to impress someone"

Task persistence is also reduced

  • "when people are stressed or "
  • "tired from exertion or lack of sleep."


what limits willpower

And more quotes:

  • blood sugar. "Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes."
    • "Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control"


A study showed:

"People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first."


increasing willpower capacity

All the above can be used to increase willpower, or at least deliberately choose when to spend it in order for it to have the maximum impact.

  • practice
    • "practice increases willpower capacity"
    • "Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use."
    • "consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower"
    • perhaps one could design a set of willpower exercises of gradually increasing difficulty levels to build willpower strength, analogous to physical exercises.
  • eat well "Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods."
  • use nondominant limbs "In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity."
  • exercise "People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework."
  • money-management classes. "Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well."



  • spend wisely "spend your limited willpower budget wisely"
    • passive resistance example: "if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy."
    • active performance example: "if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job."
  • focus
    • "Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success." See also EffectiveMultitasking, which discusses *limiting* your multitasking (perhaps down to singletasking at times) in order to maximize effectiveness.


mechanism unknown

Again from the NYT article:

"No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity."


Side thought: and this is a good example of why I personally avoid illegal (and thus typically untrustworthy) drugs. Willpower is perhaps just one of many cognitive ability mechanisms in the brain apparently sensitive to small neurotransmitter changes. The marginal (likely long-term) risk from experimenting with such substances is far greater than the marginal short-term entertainment benefits. However, to each their own. Do with your body as you see best fit. Pro-choice, freedom of consumption, etc. etc.


willpower associated with success

"the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life."


force of will

There is a fascinating thread on Metafilter that discussed the question of what if anything is Batman's superpower. The conclusion is that his superpower is "force of will", another way of saying, tremendous willpower.


Given what Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers says about deliberate practice, and the fact that practice does improve willpower, it does seem reasonable to conclude that one could develop willpower to virtuoso levels.


With ever increasing willpower you would be able to direct even more time, energy, and focus at practicing and developing it, there would likely be a self-compounding effect, perhaps geometric, to realizing ever increasing levels of willpower faster and faster.


If developed far beyond average or typical human levels of willpower (assuming willpower can be measured), it would be akin to a willpower superpower, the very "force of will" superpower mentioned in the Metafilter thread.


related articles


others related pages


see also


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