Willpower is unique to humanity.  It is the keystone characteristic that is directly responsible for our technological advancement over the last several hundred thousand years.  Willpower can be defined as the capacity to restrain our impulses and resist temptation in order to maximize our long-term success.  It is the expulsion of energy to fight off innate survival based urges to exponentially increase future advantages and benefits.  It is the driving force behind all civilizations, and it is what prods humankind forward to learn and grow.

When we turn down a bite of cheesecake, step away from a mind numbing reality sitcom, or push off a nap to get some work done, the credit goes to willpower.  It is this ghost like aura of control and discipline that we rely on to extend our existence and maximize our accomplishments.  When we watch highly successful individuals exercise routinely, read voraciously, and work tirelessly, we are impressed with their ability to resist instant gratification.  Most of us struggle to hold ourselves back from daily pleasures so as to work on self-improvement.  But how do the chosen few make it happen?  Are they the lucky recipients of steadfast genes, predisposed to adeptly control their yearnings better than the rest of us?

To some extent, yes.  Certain individuals are superiorly calibrated to fight off fleeting desires in the short term.  But, what’s far more important is the revelation by psychologists that willpower is akin to a muscle.   Regardless of how weak one’s innate level of willpower is, it can be trained and strengthened to rival the willpower of those super ambitious and successful folks we all admire.  According to Roy Baumeister, an eminent social psychologist and famed expert on the subject, willpower can be bolstered with great success.  This is an extraordinarily important discovery since willpower, in Baumeister’s opinion, is “the key to success and a happy life.”

For many students who struggle with mathematics, having a sturdy level of willpower is the difference between finishing an assignment and turning in a half-hearted problem set.  It is the difference between spending an extra hour and a half preparing for an exam, or merely skimming a chapter review the night before.  In sum, it is the difference between excellence and mediocrity.

For students who truly enjoy mathematics, there is no war to wage.  Math is fun, and homework will be done thoroughly and completely as a means of gratification.  But for those students who have to fight urges to play video games, watch movies, skateboard, or read novels while trudging through their math homework, willpower is what will save the day.

So how can willpower be developed?  How can students engineer a perfect level of self-control and discipline?  Just like actual muscle fibers, willpower must be exercised in the right away.  Overexertion can be exhausting and counterproductive, whereas just the right amount of use can (1) optimize productivity and (2) augment one’s willpower capacity.  For folks who are interested in bolstering their willpower muscle, here are five quick tips:

  1. Stay fueled up with healthy meals – using willpower has been shown to deplete levels of glucose in the brain.  Since it can often require great effort to stave off temptation, it is recommended that students maintain a healthy and regular diet replete with nutrients.  Healthy meals will give the willpower muscle the fuel it needs to operate at its highest levels.
  2. Maintain a positive attitude – being happy and positive makes individuals far more able to employ their willpower.  When students feel down or depressed, a common reaction is to dive into things that provide instant gratification.  This could be an unhealthy meal, a lengthy break involving television or video games, or a long nap.  Feeling happy and positive makes it much easier to stay on task.
  3. Partake in a healthy number of extracurricular activities – the reason why participating in many activities is beneficial is because it exercises the willpower muscle.  When students have obligations and commitments that cannot be avoided, it trains them to push off their fleeting desires to focus on something in particular.  Enrolling children in piano lessons and karate isn’t to make them professional musicians or seasoned MMA fighters.  The most important aspect of extracurricular involvement is the development of strong willpower, something that will be applicable and useful during school and beyond.
  4. Apply willpower sparingly and gradually – trying to hold back on too many things can spell disaster.  If someone is attempting to stick to homework, avoid fatty foods, stop watching TV, and exercise regularly all at once, he will find it highly challenging.  Why?  Because his willpower will be depleted very quickly.  This means that the end result will likely be failure on all fronts.  Instead of overcommitting, students should pick something in particular to focus on.  Once someone grows accustomed to a single task, that action will have morphed into a habit requiring very little effort to maintain.  At this point, one can then deploy his willpower elsewhere.
  5. Offer rewards each time a task is accomplished – every time a student successfully fights off temptation, he deserves a reward.  Not only will this reinforce positive behavior, but it will help to rest and replenish the willpower muscle.