How Can I Cultivate a Strong Will?

March 18, 2018

Ideally, we wouldn’t need to have an iron will. We would swim only in rivers that have a favorable current. We wouldn’t be one of those who, for some reason, seem to love the idea of filling their schedules with activities and commitments that test their will. Perhaps, overcoming challenges will feel satisfying. However, it also does quite a bit of wear and tear on our psyches.

So, perhaps the first thing we should say about having an iron will is that you shouldn’t abuse it. Don’t spend all day every day carrying that weight. Try to make sure that most of your activities don’t go against gravity or common sense.

Water droplets.

Will and habit

Will becomes less necessary when there is inertia. By inertia, we mean the movement an object has when the sum of the forces acting upon it is zero. It’s a basic concept in physics. To put it another way, imagine a marble rolling on a surface without friction. On this surface it would never stop, or it would at least be harder to stop.

Well, when it comes to human beings, inertia is related to habit. For example, we all have different habits when it comes to waking up in the morning. If we adopt a strict schedule for getting out of bed, in the end it will be easier for us to get up. It’s less about having will power everyday, and more about adapting our behavior through discipline so we can rely less on will and more on an inertia working in our favor.

Motivation, the soul of the will

One thing that’s very good for your will is motivation. Imagine you have library books you need to return in order to check out new ones. You want to get new books, but it seems so hard to gather up the books you have already checked out, drive to the library, return the books, and find new ones.

Since you can’t check out new books with a snap of your fingers and instead have to go through many other steps, it is difficult to make yourself do it. You might end up only returning the books after the due date, since that adds even more motivation to do so.

The cost of not getting new books is perceived as lower than the cost of not getting new books and paying a fine. So here, there is not enough motivation. Without motivation, it’s hard to act on willpower alone. Thus the books are not returned until there is absolutely no choice.

Will and motivation.

The relationship between motivation and will can also be understood another way. For example, when we set a medium or long-term goal for ourselves, setting short-term goals as well helps us stay on track. Short-term goals usually demand less from us and make the long-term goal less of a burden.

Imagine that you have decided to lose 20 pounds. To achieve this, you will change your diet and increase your daily exercise. If you are excited to lose weight and feel good about each small goal you achieve, the effort required to stay on track will feel easier.

Thus, meeting small goals greatly increases our will to continue.

Will, self-efficacy, and defining goals

The strength of our will also depends on how well we define our goals. Precise, divisible, measurable, well-defined objectives give us more control. They are more stable and they aid in our willpower. In this sense, uncertainty will test our will more than almost anything, because it takes the solid ground out from underneath our feet.

Will is also sensitive to self-efficacy. Self-efficacy has to do with the feeling or intuition that we’re going to be successful in doing something. For example, I have a friend who is an athlete. He told me recently he had to postpone some training due to a string of injuries.

Now he has started exercising again and he told me that while the exercises were always demanding, they are now much more mentally taxing. This is because he worries he won’t finish them and thinks about how he has already had to cancel some.

In my friend’s case, it is a lack of perceived self-efficacy that has made it so much harder to have willpower. The possibility of having to get up early, go to the gym, warm up, only to discover he can’t do the training has increased the demand on his will.

A flying whale in the mountains.

Will and social support

Finally, we want to highlight how valuable social support is. For example, sharing our goals with others means they can help us in times of weakness. Social accountability can help motivate us because we must do what we said we would.

In this sense, social support is a double-edged sword. If it is not intelligent support or if it constantly reminds us of our failures, it can actually place a greater burden on our willpower. To prevent this from happening, we can share our goals but also tell them how we’d like them to support us.

As we’ve seen, having a strong will is important. However, there are many other factors that can help us achieve our goals. We must be careful not to waste our energy trying to use willpower alone, exhausting our inner strength. Instead, we should be smart and use these methods to help strengthen our will and get things done.