Saturday, November 2, 2013

Managing Your Willpower

One of the greatest paradoxes of human nature is how much attention and effort people spend on goals that they are capable of achieving, but never do.  I'm not talking really hard achievements like becoming a billionaire, or an Olympic caliber athlete.  I believe achieving goals like that require a special blend of talent, persistence, opportunity and luck, and are simply not possible for the majority of the population, no matter what.  What I'm referring to are the perennial New Years resolutions, always made, rarely fulfilled, and yet eagerly attempted again when the next year rolls around.  Lose weight.  Quit smoking.  Get to the gym every day.  Stop drinking.  Stop overspending and pay down your debts.  These goals are within the reach of almost every person who attempts them.  But they are achieved by only a small percentage.  Multi-billion dollar industries have been created towards helping people achieve these goals which, on the surface, don't seem to be that hard.  What's going on here?

The most common problem is a failure of willpower.  Willpower is a subject of deep concern to any student of the martial arts.  It's needed to get to class each night, when it would be so much easier just to sit in front of the TV with a cold beer.  It's needed to persist in training in the long term, when you're feeling discouraged and frustrated that you're not improving as fast as you think you should.  It's needed to keep punching the target with everything you've got, even when you're really tired.  It's needed to keep fighting, even though you're sure you're outclassed and it feels like it will just hurt too much to go on.  Willpower should be studied more thoroughly than any technique or kata.

And yet, for all the importance of willpower, people know remarkably little about it.  Or at least, our knowledge of it doesn't impact the way we treat it.  Willpower is often seen as similar to muscular strength, which is a pretty good analogy.  And yet, a failure of willpower is often seen as some kind of character flaw.  We don't think a person has a character flaw if they are unable to bench press several times their weight, or if they get tired after a long workout.  Why do we think it's different if a person can't muster the mental energy to do something really difficult, or can't stay focused after a day full of distractions?

We also consider it perfectly reasonable to exercise to improve our strength.  For some reason, we don't necessarily treat willpower the same way.  There seems to be a disconnect here.

Increasing amounts of research point to willpower as having all the properties mentioned above.  Using it all day leaves you with very little by the evening.  Exercising it can make it stronger.  Saving it for when you really need it can make a world of difference when it comes to succeeding at key tasks.

When you plan how you are going to improve at the martial arts, managing your willpower should be a key element in your plan.  How will you conserve it during the day?  Remember that decisions require less willpower when it's easy to make them.  If your bag is right by the door, it's easier to grab it and get to the dojo than if you have to go hunting for it in the basement.  If you're going to really push yourself for a hard exercise in class, do it early in the evening when you still have the mental energy.  Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.  Do you have a martial arts buddy to inspire you to go even when you don't feel like it?

How are you working to improve your willpower?  Working out is a start.  Is it enough?  Do you need to supplement it with meditation, or some other discipline of willful focus?

Willpower is not an accident.  It is an attribute you develop over time.  Make sure you make an effort to cultivate and manage it, and you will be more effective, not just in the martial arts, but in all aspects of your life.