New Year’s resolutions are 99% forlorn, ultimately, because many of them are built in the temporary influence of so-called willpower. The recent science suggests that willpower is a powerful force, but it is limited in its range unless it is exercised.
The work of Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (Willpower), profiled here, suggests that goals can be achieved by willpower but we best use it wisely, training it much like we do a muscle, to raise its fatigue threshold, and to minimise the effect of ego depletion (that sense of failure we feel when our willpower, alone, has failed us).
Looking at the Science
Science has a strange way about it; as soon as we’ve read the results of research, together with the conclusions made, we accept the hypothesis. We become convinced of it... if it’s good science. And this science is.
Very simply, then, if we think of willpower—the ability to self-ordinate levels of self-control for the achievement of goals and transformation of habits—as a muscle, we may go close to knowing how to improve our willpower.
Any professional bodybuilder will tell us that growing muscles requires they be ‘hit’ from different angles, in different ways, with different weights and routines, and most importantly muscles need rest; otherwise they get fatigued and overtraining results.
Like working out hard for two hours is going to send our bodies into fatigue, working on several goals at a time, and perhaps asking too much of our willpower, is going to pillage our powers of self-control. We may quickly become willpower-bound: not able to achieve any goal.
But, by working out our willpower muscle, steadily and regularly, with smaller and more iterative goals, the powers for change can be harnessed. Less ego depletion occurs as a result and, actually, greater portions of self-confidence are redeemed.
Never Underestimate the Miraculous
Besides willpower, there is another power; one the world doesn’t use—indeed, it loathes even the thought of its existence. Beyond willpower is a miraculous power of God: the provision of power beyond comprehension and, hence, explanation.
We certainly know this miraculous power that sponsors change by the times our willpower was massively weak, again and again, and then suddenly—without warning—we were strong enough to achieve our goal. God was there for us; why, for this time and not others, we don’t know, except perhaps because of our more surrendered sense of obedience.
Exercising our willpower muscle, but avoiding fatigue, is a key to a happier and healthier life. We can see God blessing our application of diligent moderation, and obedient surrender, as we do this. Willpower, alone, is not enough. We ought to be single-minded, prayerful, and resolute—but, also, reasonable in our application of self-discipline.
We achieve very little, long-term, without God firmly in the picture.
© 2011 S. J. Wickham.