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ubersiren's avatar

Where does willpower come from?

Asked by ubersiren (15152points) June 10th, 2010

I’m forever struggling with food and my weight (this isn’t about this specifically), and realize a huge part of my problem is willpower.

Whether you’re trying to eat right, exercise, study regularly for a class, volunteer, or accomplish some other goal, it’s more difficult for some to muster up the willpower to resist giving in to distractions and temptations.

Where do you find this “willpower?” Is it inherited, taught, discovered, earned, etc? How can you improve it? How do you fight the id? Does everyone have it and some people are just lazy and greedy? Is there just no excuse for this weakness?

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30 Answers

Jude's avatar

GQ. Waiting to hear what others say..

kenmc's avatar


CMaz's avatar

The letting go of trauma.

hug_of_war's avatar

I have willpower in many things but food/exercise is the one thing I utterly fail at. I think I lack the proper self-motivation because I can’t really privately do it (live at home) and everyone thinks it’s their business while other things I can do without others noticing which is great for a deeply private person like myself. If I feel everyone is keeping tabs on me all the time though I am less likely to stick with it.

partyparty's avatar

If you want something really badly, then you will do anything and everything to get it. It takes sheer determination, and an almost desperate need to keep going. J
ust staying focused on the eventual aim will give you that extra push to achieve.

kevbo's avatar

I’m not going to claim this is the whole answer, but at least part of it is rooted in awareness. When we hit the fridge to medicate a problem, we mostly aren’t aware of the thought process that is dictating the behavior, and possibly we aren’t aware of the behavior. It’s sort of like triggering a macro in our brain which takes over until it runs its course, and we’re left wondering why the hell we did that again. So awareness is recognizing the macro and being able to see and break it down into its individual parts. This allows us to evaluate whether the behavior is effective and choose a different behavior if it is not.

I’m going to back up for a minute to talk about distractions and temptations. When we try to do something challenging, we hit resistance. The resistance is unpleasant and stressful and for some induces a bit of a panic reaction. If we are not able to control this reaction or even just to observe “I am panicking because this is uncomfortable,” the next response might be “I need to feel better.” Temptations and distractions offer the immediate promise of feeling better. So you get the good feeling without the hard work.

So, perhaps willpower is the ability to “see through” the discomfort of resistance toward a more permanent or more meaningful payoff. This ability might be something obtained through experience (such as a formative childhood experience—which might even include a strong reaction to childhood trauma) or through ethical or religious dogma (doctrine forbidding hedonistic tendencies perhaps) or possibly being seduced by some type of “me too-ism”—being motivated to keep up with a peer group of achievers. I suppose one could characterize it as a bit of blind faith for those who have never truly “fallen.” I can imagine though that it means a lot more for someone who has and has recovered.

Lastly, belief may have a lot to do with it. Someone on Fluther once wrote that it is impossible for people to act contrary to their beliefs. People with willpower undoubtedly have strong beliefs in themselves or at least in dedicating themselves to a particular purpose. For example, here’s Chuck Norris’ personal code:

1. I will develop myself to the maximum of my potential in all ways.
2. I will forget the mistakes of the past and press on to greater achievements.
3. I will continually work at developing love, happiness and loyalty in my family.
4. I will look for the good in all people and make them feel worthwhile.
5. If I have nothing good to say about a person, I will say nothing.
6. I will always be as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own.
7. I will maintain an attitude of open-mindedness.
8. I will maintain respect for those in authority and demonstrate this respect at all times.
9. I will always remain loyal to my God, my country, family and my friends.
10. I will remain highly goal-oriented throughout my life because that positive attitude helps my family, my country and myself.

So, in his case, constant meditation on these ideals mostly carries him through. There’s not much room in his brain or for indulging in temptation and distraction nor for forming those kinds of habits.

ucme's avatar

I packed in the cancer sticks (cigarettes) together with the wife nine years ago now. No gum, patches or medication just sheer willpower.For me it was just having the inner strength to overcome the evil that is cold turkey.Knowing that only good could possibly come at the end was another contributing factor.Well that & thinking of the cold hard cash that would & did become inevitably saved.So yeah I reckon it’s a case of summoning up the resolve & defiance to succeed that helps us achieve staggering & hitherto insurmountable challenges that life has a habit of kicking up.

janbb's avatar

@ucme “packed in the cancer sticks together with the wife” Both at the same time?

ucme's avatar

@janbb Err yeah!!

SmashTheState's avatar

@kevbo Chuck Norris is a reactionary douchebag. His “personal code” reads like a Young Republikan recruitment pamphlet for people too young or too stupid to understand how human beings actually work.

Anyway, the use of the term “will” in the context of this question is a misnomer. Will in the sense of the Will to Power is the exercising of an existential choice. Our culture tries to remove as much true choice from people’s lives as possible, hiding this fact under an avalanche of false choices: should I buy this hair conditioner or that one, should I smoke or not smoke, should I recycle my soda cans or throw them in the trash. None of those questions requires any kind of existential manifestation of the Will to Power.

Pointing a gun at someone and deciding whether or not to pull the trigger; standing before a great mountain which has claimed countless lives and deciding whether or not to climb it; approaching a line of angry riot police and deciding whether or not to risk your safety, liberty, or even your life in confronting the naked fist of the State; these are things which require the manifestation of true existential choice. It is only when we make these kinds of choices that we are truly human.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I get mine from inner rage ;)

talljasperman's avatar

knowing what I do and don’t want

Jude's avatar

If you want it bad enough?

JLeslie's avatar

I believe the conversation in our minds regarding avoiding and then giving into habits and addictions is what we are primarily addicted to because it distracts our thoughts. Let’s say you feel bored or annoyed with your spouse, whatever it is. You think about eating somethinng (so you are not thinking about how shitty your spouse just treated you for this example) and then go to the fridge look around, close the door, wrestle in your mind, if you eat the left over lasagna you will exercise an extra half hour, then you finally give in eat the lasagna, you get a little spaced focusing on how yummy it is, and then afterwards you can stew for 30 minutes to an hour about how you should not have eaten that and how you are going to make up for it (still avoiding dealing with your pain or thoughts about your spouse).

I just think a lot of overeating is avoidance of something else. Oh, and the food tastes so good. LOL.

You have to decide to be uncomfortable, and I think replace eating with something else. Form a new habit.

ninjacolin's avatar

I agree with kevbo that willpower is in effect awareness of a thing you want to accomplish. Increasing your awareness about an activity will increase your stick-to-it-iveness to that activity.

Stop trying so hard to watch your diet physically. Get yourself prepared mentally first. Read, watch videos, learn about food and exercise. Fill your mind with practical ideas about food and exercise. Get your brain into the habit of thinking about good foods and the best exercises. Spend a month learning all you can. Read books on the matter, not just magazines and web.

That month will provide a lot more willpower than you currently have access to.

kevbo's avatar

@SmashTheState, most people with willpower or will to power are reactionary douchebags of one form or another. It’s difficult not to be. My point wasn’t to hold Chuck Norris in high esteem. It was to illustrate what occupies his brain space that mitigates the tendency to give in to temptation and distraction. There are a hundred other examples. That just came to mind.

Your examples of existential choices seem to be about confronting monumental forces. I don’t think making the decision to struggle against the “food matrix” (one that manipulates our evolutionary triggers) is that much different. Regardless, one has to see the problem as such and that comes back to belief as well. I can stand or not stand in front of angry riot police, but that circumstance makes no sense unless there is a belief of some kind that informs the action.

perspicacious's avatar

Strength of character.

Cruiser's avatar

I find it helps to surround myself with equally motivated people.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Ultimately what we call “willpower” is our degree of commitment to do all that it takes to follow through with our well defined behavioural goals that we set for ourselves.

If you really know very specifically what you want to do and you have a plan to guide you on how to overcome your personal obstacles to accomplishing that goal and you stick to that plan, then you can and will succeed as long as that goal is realistic and you take things one step at a time.

YARNLADY's avatar

You can train your mind to obey your will, as opposed to being lazy or weak. You can start with doing several small things a day that you don’t really want to do, but know you should.

1. Look around for something you are procrastinating about. Make a conscious decision right now to go do it! There, you have already begun the process of re-training your mind to obey your will.

2. You know you need exercise, but you put it off. Begin your training with a simply walk around the block – wait, you can’t manage that – OK, take a walk around your house. Count your steps (every right foot =‘s 2 steps) and see how many steps you can take, the more the better to just walk into every room of your house – right now.

3. Make a list of things you have been putting, and resolve to do another thing on your list every day, then shorten that to twice a day, and so on. The list can include repetitive things like wash the dishes, walk around the block – two blocks – three blocks and so on.

casheroo's avatar

All I can say is “within” which sounds so cheesy.

But aren’t you still nursing?? I’m starving constantly because of this, and still have 27lbs to lose from my pregnancy but my body seems to think I need it so I can breastfeed. Ugh. Stupid body. lol.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

Setting rigid goals and timetables. Blocking out everything else. Setting goals, achieving them, then setting more goals before laziness sets in. No self-pity or -congratulation, just checklists and milestones. Eyes front, forward march. Bleak, but preferable to the alternative.

Scooby's avatar

I just really came to terms with who I really am!! ME!! :-/

Silhouette's avatar

Mine comes from self respect. I don’t like letting myself down.

ubersiren's avatar

@kevbo Really terrific answer.

@casheroo Still nursing. I feel like I could eat a horse… and then another one. I lost a bunch of weight right away, but have gained a little back. It’s sort of yo-yo-ing. I’m exercising and eating better but my appetite is insatiable. And I’m a big grump if I’m hungry now. Lol. It’s so freaking hard.

casheroo's avatar

@ubersiren I’m totally the same way. I turn into uberbitch when I get hungry. And I always forget to pack a snack so I’m like a crack head with no crack. Then I come home and binge eat. Such a bad cycle.

mattbrowne's avatar

First learn the ability to enjoy and value delayed gratification. By learning complex stuff. A foreign language. A musical instrument. How to play chess. Most computer games are about instant gratification.

ubersiren's avatar

@mattbrowne Interesting strategy. Although, I read that regarding women and hunger, this is a significantly more difficult feat to pull off than with men. Men’s hunger can somewhat diminish, while women’s grows and grows. It was suggested that it was part of the mother role in women. Not that delaying eating couldn’t be done, but maybe easier for men than women? I’ll try to find that study.

I don’t know if this is the exact article I read, but-

Anyway, I know it’s not excuse, but it’s easier said than done.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ubersiren – Hmm. I wasn’t aware of this difference. Interesting article. Dealing with hunger is a challenge. Very often a low-fat approach is counterproductive. Protein and valuable fats keep away hunger far longer than high-glycemic carbs such as sugar, white bread and potatoes.

TarotAndTotem's avatar

How about combining will power with the power of imagination?
I’ve been reading a book and listening to the accompanying CD on how to learn to sing well. The author has taught thousands of students and she’s noticed that the ones who become the best singers and learn fastest aren’t necessarily the most talented or disciplined students. What they have is Imagination, audio imagination. They can vividly imagine themselves being able to sing really well, with great phrasing and emotion. They can imagine having the breath control, the projection, all the skills needed to be a great singer before they’ve actually developed the skills. The author say dancers are the same ways about imagining their bodies.
About weight loss – you could vividly “see” yourself being a thinner body or having a different type of appetite than you now have. Imagine physically experiencing the thinner lighter body.
I love this concept because it combines believing in your ability, stoking up a desire, and indulging in the fun of imagination. I’m going to see how this works for me in areas of my life other than singing.
Even though the concept sounds like The Secret, it’s different because it concerns developing and using imagination to gain skills and abilities rather than just daydreaming and scheming about getting whatever.

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