Willpower is NOT Like Muscle: Latest Research

You can do more because willpower is not like a muscle

Will power is a muscle, says research. Media has been preaching this for years. But, the latest research is suggesting that willpower is not like a muscle after all. It has to do more with psychology than anything else. It’s all in your head, and here’s how.

WIllpower, for our purposes, is simply the ability to delay gratification. This will be a complementary post to The One Trait That The Most Successful People Have.

Qualification – My Experience on How Willpower is NOT Like a Muscle

Personally, I’ve found that I can build up momentum by stacking hard things together.

I trained for my marathon races and continued to work full time, solving technical problems as a software developer, lift heavy weight past failure 5 days a week for over an hour (I was paranoid about losing muscle due to all the running), not eat sweets, learn and pursue my own, technical, passion projects on the side, and do 30 minute sprinting interval training sessions 3 times a week and weekend training runs of over 15 miles a single setting for a total of 40+ miles a week for two months leading up to my last marathon. On top of this, I was transitioning to nasal breathing 100% of the time, except for high intensity interval training (I ran the entire marathon breathing through my nose, all my weight lifting was as well).

During this time, my Heart Rate Variability (as measured by an Oura Ring) was in the 80s-90s, resting heart rate regularly got down to low 40s, all my metrics looked good for heath. I was often irritable during these times, but when away from the triggers, I felt on top of the world.

For the record, these two months was exactly what I refer to as a Discipline Mission in The Ultimate Guide to Challenge.

The point is that I find doing the next hard thing easier when I am going all in as opposed to having one foot in and the other out. Living in alignment like this promotes intense commitment.

This process taught me that life is a mind game. This was the time period that I developed the concept of the Lean-In Mindset from my post on Discipline. Doing hard things builds momentum, doing them repeatedly together trains the mind that it has no other choice, that that is the norm. The brain adjusts, and the result is less psychological resistance. Commitment is a game changer.

The Problem

What holds most people back is moving around like they’re walking on egg shells, afraid to pull a muscle or hurt themselves. They have outdated beliefs about their capabilities that society has imposed on them. At an unconscious level, they, you, and I, have beliefs that our environments have taught us about what we can and can’t do. Challenging these beliefs by pushing yourself to extremes and developing discipline is a game changer.

At the heart of this issue is psychological resistance. These deeply seeded, unconscious, beliefs influence our behaviors without us even knowing. If, deep down, we don’t believe we can do something, that will add a lot of resistance to our actions, we will look for ways out. We can achieve what we think is impossible when we are left without a choice. This is why people achieve great heights as a result of adversity. Their understanding of the world was shattered, and they were given no other choice. It is do or die, massive commitment will follow. Instead of the brain looking for ways out, it now has to find a solution.

You Can Do More

David Goggins, an ultra-endurance athlete, and my single biggest inspiration for how I view discipline, has discovered what he calls the “40% rule”. This is a Navy Seal who has ran over 100 miles in a single day with no prior training, and countless other physical feats including going through Hell Week of Seal’s training multiple times. The 40% rule is a statement that when we think we are done, we have a lot more left.

The brain’s desire to minimize pain leads to what Goggins calls the “Governor” of our brain, much like the governor of a car, preventing it from going too fast. The brain will encourage you to stop when things start to get hard as a way to keep you safe, but growth comes from challenge, that challenge leads to necessity by the brain and body to change. Necessity fuels greatness. You can do far more than you think.

David Goggins would agree that willpower is not like a muscle, there is far more at play.

Goggins realized this from pushing himself to extremes. This idea of making fundamental discoveries in the extremes is a theme that repeats itself throughout history. Science is based on this. Any system, tested in the extreme, will show its fundamental properties. This is how the truth can be quickly and efficiently discovered. Because of this, David Goggins discoveries can be trusted, and I have put this to the test through my own experience. This is what it means to “push yourself to your limits to see what you’re made of”.

For more on the idea of stressing a system to discover properties and truths, checkout 4 Ways That The Coronavirus is The Best Opportunity.

Willpower isn’t what helped Goggins achieve what he’s achieved. Motivation isn’t it either. A purpose was what kept him going. He had a pivotal moment where he decided he had enough. From this moment on, poof, no more resistance, this profound mindset shift reshaped his life forever, he was deeply committed, it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of how.

A Big Idea

Willpower isn’t like a muscle because the use of it early on, with a shock, increases its strength later on, with no need for a rest. A muscle doesn’t have consciousness to override its default behavior.

Your ability to push through the hard things all comes down to mental discipline. Discipline is a personality trait, something you can develop, it is intertwined with your identity. The fact that it’s intertwined with your identity is the key for how willpower isn’t something that can be exhausted.

If you identify yourself as “someone who does hard things”, then you will act in alignment with that. If you identify yourself as “someone who is lazy” or “a victim”, then.. you will act in alignment with that. To not act in alignment with how you subconsciously identify yourself, will feel like death.

The death of the identity is the death of your experience, which is the death of your consciousness. This is death as we know it.

Why the Research Might Have Lagged Behind Realizing Willpower is NOT Like a Muscle

Willpower is not like a muscle, it is a made-up human construct to try and explain something that isn’t well understood. The researchers that done these original studies are likely not the type to push themselves to physical extremes and thus lack a vital component to realizing what is really going on. They’re subject to their own biases and have a lack of experience, trying to make sense of something they haven’t experienced themselves.

I think the truth that willpower is not like a muscle, is more widely available now is because we live in a far more connected world. High performance athletes are popping up all over, an unavoidable pile of anecdotal evidence is showing itself. The “smart jock” is also becoming more common as research shows how impactful exercise and “doing hard things” is to the intelligence of an individual. This would lead to the psychologists and research themselves being more likely to have pushed to their own physical extremes.

Additionally, willpower and the analogy of a muscle is catch, it is likely to be shared and blown out of proportion. Analogies in the wrong hands can easily get abused as people try to make it fit in every way possible. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and brings all of its limitations.

The Latest Research on How Willpower is NOT Like a Muscle

So, my own experience vouches that willpower is not like a muscle. But, the research has been catching up.

The latest research shows that willpower is not like a muscle

Recent research show that ego-depletion, as it is called, is a myth. Your willpower is only limited if you think it is. This is at the core of the Lean-In mentality. Give yourself an escape route, and there will always be resistance to engaging the risky. It is this resistance that causes performance to suffer and lifestyles to fall a part.

Motivation

For the record, motivation is out of equation. Motivation is an emotion, like happiness. You may feel happy until a fist hits you in the face or your car breaks down. You may feel motivated until the first obstacle hits you in the face. Emotions are like waves, motivations it he same. There are peaks and valleys.

Motivation won’t get you to your destination, especially if it’s any meaningful or valuable destination that requires a considerable amount of effort to arrive at, such as getting a degree at college or running a marathon. Motivation, as an emotion, will not last that long. Anywhere where there is a state change, such as how you have emotional ups and downs during a long-distance run, motivation is not the answer. The answer is a PURPOSE, meaning behind your work, that is what lasts, a deeper drive, a mission.

Exhaustion

Now, I find that exhaustion is still a thing, the point here is that you can recover from exhaustion through basic “whitespace” exercises. These are exercises where you reduce as much sensory stimulus as possible. Noise-canceling earbuds and headphones (double up for added sensory reduction!), eyes closed, and in a relaxed position.

I hesitate to write about exhaustion here because I don’t want it to add as reinforcement to your unconscious beliefs on the limits of willpower. Willpower is a made-up term to describe something that isn’t even well understood and likely has relations to many other mental phenomena such as the filter through which we view the world, our past experiences, interpretations, environment, etc.

I find, well-timed, and strategic breaks, to be vital to doing challenging things. But the point here is that we, far too often, look for excuses to not do the challenging. We look for those people around us to pamper our identity and make us feel good about our limitations. This behavior holds us back and leads to a downward spiral. Much like taking the first bite of ice cream or other sweet treat, it has a way of encouraging you to have more.

The brain will aim to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, and immaturity and a lack of responsibility as conscious beings leads us to diseases such as obesity and Alzheimer’s.

Because we are conscious, we must learn how to live.

Summary

Willpower is not like a muscle where too much use wears it out. It isn’t something that is a daily allowance that is gone once you use up. This is an oversimplification, at best, for something that isn’t even well understood. It has a catchy tagline and therefore gets shared around more, spreading the myth further. Much like typical mainstream.

Believing that you can do more is more effective for success, since the actual limits, if any, are far beyond what we would imagine. And, believing that there are limits will limit you. as you’re constantly “checking” to see if you’ve hit them. You can gain a “second wind”, a third and a fourth, by pushing through the waves of discomfort. Emotions, physical sensations, and all feelings, in general, take a wave-like form.

It is the exhaustion in the belief of our abilities that has the largest impact. Believe in yourself greatly, and you’ll achieve greatly.

Willpower is used as an excuse, perhaps unconsciously, to do less than what we can actually do. It is the brain’s Governor kicking in. Our thoughts come from this very same brain that is trying to avoid discomfort, so if it isn’t trained properly, you will find yourself unable to do challenging things that will lead to success.

Discipline is all about gaining control over your mind, or as David Goggins says: “Callusing your mind”. It is our responsibility, as conscious individuals, to learn how to use our brain. It is not something to be taken for granted, you wouldn’t assume you know how to use some super computer if you had no prior experience. The brain is the most powerful and complex system known to the species, your life will be subpar, to say the least, if you don’t explore your inner world. This concept of Exploration is at the key to “learning how to live”, I’ve explored this in great depth in my Effective Living series.

Afterword

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9 thoughts on “Willpower is NOT Like Muscle: Latest Research

  1. Thanks, I really like the part where it is our responsibility to learn how to use the brain. We need this taught at schools 😊

    1. That’s a really good point, Kellie!

      I have theories as to why it isn’t, ranging from old habits (comfort), fear from those in power to the wide variety and lack of understanding of how the brain works. Not tangible enough to say yes or no. Creativity isn’t taught in schools that much either, for similar reasons. A grade expects pass/fail criteria, not subjective. I 100% agree that the way we define “school” should change, perhaps to one more experienced based, emphasized exploration and curiosity. But… that would make it more abstract from an employers standpoint and the data to measure progress would be far more murky and hard to compare our efforts.

      Modern school systems still use “lectures”, which is term and style originating many centuries ago where an instructor would read from a text book, the students would write down the gist what the lecturer says, and by the end of the course, they’d have their own copy. Basically, capturing information and compensating for the lack of wide-scale printing.
      Not much has changed since then 😀

      Thanks for sparking my thinking (: There is a lot of interesting points here that could be explored.

    1. Thank you, Ishaan, I appreciate your feedback (:

      What do you think of the comparison between willpower and a muscle?
      In what ways do you think it’s accurate, and in what ways does that analogy fall apart?

      Nothing is black or white, the analogy has its use. But if it serves as a crutch, that’s where the issues come up.
      I’m interested in hearing your thoughts (:

      1. It’s something to think about…
        I think it might be like a muscle, but your ideology is nice too. I will ponder over it for some time.

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