Willpower, and why the best ideas come from within

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”
– Blaise Pascal

This is a foundational truth of coaching – that people respond better when they form an idea in their own head rather than having someone else hand it to them fully formed. That’s not to say the seed can’t be planted by someone else, just that for a person to take full ownership, and full accountability, of it – the fundamental idea must come from within that person.

As a coach, one of my favorite parts of a session is when I point out something to a client, usually something they were hinting at, yet not saying, and the response is a pause of 5-10 seconds – then their eyes open wide and they say “YES!” and proceed to formulate the ideas they need in order to move forward.

The idea is their own, I’m the catalyst.

Short pause for a definition so we can all start on the same page, per Dictionary.com:

Willpower: control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

For most of us, there is more willpower available to pursue self-generated ideas. I have nothing scientific to back this up, just first hand experience and observation. Think about your last work project. When your boss came to you and asked for a report detailing next quarter’s budget and projected expenses, you nod in agreement and promptly go back to whatever you were doing. After all, you’ve got until Monday.

Contrast that to when you want to know if your department has the budget to pursue a new product you developed. Now you have no problem pulling up Excel and going to town producing a sterling spreadsheet detailing exactly how you’ll do it. This one’s your baby. The fundamental idea sprouted in your brain, and you want to nurture that idea and see it come to fruition.

Both of these situations produce similar results – a detailed financial report/spreadsheet. However the project request from your boss will likely be put off until the last possible moment, and it will include only the bare necessities as per instruction from the boss. On the other hand, the project you came up with will have all the flash and dash your Excel skills allow – and you’ll get started immediately.

What’s the difference between these scenarios – if the outcome is so close to the same? That is to say, you generate a report that you ultimately present to your boss. So why does it matter where the impetus comes from?

Well, for the sake of this conversation, the difference is everything. Willpower is not an endless resource. Humans have a limited amount of mental resources available to use each day. Since how you choose to use these limited resources is only partly up to you – there are conscious and subconscious draws on this resource – you have to be careful how it’s used so as not to draw down too far.

Subconscious use of willpower comes into play throughout the day, from getting up with or without the alarm, through breakfast choices (often ingrained rather than chosen), NOT confronting that obnoxious person on the bus, etc. These subconscious draws on your store of willpower happen without your being aware of them, so when it comes time to make a conscious effort at something, you’re often unaware of how much willpower is left in the reserve tank.

Mindfulness can be a huge asset in tracking willpower use and making sure you stay within the bounds of what’s available. By being alert and present in each moment you can monitor the tank. You will notice when something took willpower, thus drawing down the reserve. Slowly, over time, you’ll come to be aware of the moment these draws happen, and can better control how much willpower comes into play – saving more for the bigger, conscious decisions you want, and need, to be able to make that day.

Finally, a few words on how to know your reserve of willpower is all dried up – and what to do about it.

When you do something like shoveling snow (or dirt), you’re using your arm, back, and core muscles. By the end of the day, these muscle groups will be tired and sore, sometimes refusing to let you use them any more (ever tried brushing your teeth the morning after a good arm workout?). When you spend all day working on a difficult problem at work, your brain is exhausted and all you want to do is go home and crash on the couch.

Willpower works the same, when you’ve used all you have for that day, you just can’t exercise it anymore, and you’re more likely to make a bad decision about something like whether or not to eat that second piece of cake. This is the primary way you can know when your reserves are depleted, you start making abnormally bad decisions.

When that happens, your best bet is to retire for the day (if possible), or at least let those around you know that you’re operating on empty and to please help keep an eye on your decision making processes until you can get home and recharge. This is where mindfulness comes into play once again. By remaining mindful of your willpower reserves through the day, you can stay on top of how you use what’s remaining in the tank – and by extension ensure you make the best decision in each moment.

Over time and with practice, you can train yourself to meter out willpower. Using it to accomplish the task at hand or to avoid succumbing to temptation. Like muscles, willpower can, and will, become stronger with careful use.