Willpower: 8 Keys to Taking More Positive Action, More Consistently

Uncategorized Jan 06, 2021

 When we lift up heroes of social change, from Mahatma Ghandi, to Nelson Mandela to Diane Nash we often think in terms of the extraordinary impact they have had over the course of their lives. 

But in reality, these icons live their lives from moment to moment, just like every one of us. 

Ultimately, a life of extraordinary impact is very often rooted in stacking up any number of every day moments in which you take positive action.   

As someone with a calling to bring as much impact and as much joy as you can into the world, how do you build up your ability to take more positive action, more consistently, from one moment to the next?

That's the question this post explores, looking at findings from the last 50 years of research on willpower and self regulation.   

Just What is Willpower Anyway?

A helpful place to start is with the model that taking action depends on lining up our knowledge (what to do), our skills (how to do it), and our mindset (our desire to do it).

Very often our mindset is where we get stuck in taking action--we know what the right, positive thing to do is, and we know how to do it, but somehow in the moment we just don't feel like doing it...

We can define willpower as being able to get ourselves to take action in alignment with our highest and best selves even when our thoughts and feelings and pulling us in a different direction. 

Want to Build Your Willpower? 8 Key Ideas From  the Last 50 Years of Research

Let's look at 8 ideas from some key researchers about what can we do to help ourselves line up our own mindset more consistently in the moment to support the actions we know are aligned with our highest and best selves and our aspirations for positive impact as change agents.

1. Self Knowledge is the Foundation of Self Control

  • Kelly McGonigal's book The WillPower Instinct draws on her many years of teaching  the science of willpower at Stanford University, and this is one of her foundational principles. 
  • We can get tremendous insight into how to build our willpower from understanding how we are falling down--and she recommends using journaling as a way to spot patterns in how our actions are falling short of our aspirations.

2. Invest in Automaticity

  • Invest your willpower in building up small positive daily habits that become automatic over time.
  • Once a habit becomes automatic it continues to pay compound interest and doesn’t require an effort of will to keep doing it.
  • James Clear's book Atomic Habits is a tremendous resource on this--his four  laws of behavior change are summarized in this blog post on the Joyful Impact site.

3. Build a Stronger Relationship with Your Future Self 

  • This starts with Your What and Your Why: get vivid about how your future self shows up in the world, what they contribute, what loving relationships they are invested in, what brings them fun and joy, what your future self truly values the most
  • Then train yourself to think about your kindness in the present to that future self: “Am I helping or hurting my future self with this choice in this moment?”

 4. Engineer your Environment in Advance

  • Engineer your environment in advance to reduce your reliance on will power in the moment.  
  • Make it easy to make the positive choice that benefits your future self and hard to make the negative choice (e.g. don't bring home future temptation from the grocery store!)

 5. Use Clear Bright Lines

  • In many situations it is actually much easier to stick with a commitment if you make it in super clear terms
  • You are harnessing a new identity when you can say categorically: "I don't do that" 
  • A general intention is a much more slippery slope: "I'm trying to do less of that these days” doesn’t work nearly as well

6. Meditate

  • This is about being able to take that split second pause in the moment before you make a choice you'll later regret

  • In many cases being able to delay your action by as little as two tenths of a second is all that it takes to resist your instinctive reaction and choose an aligned response

  • If you've questioned whether meditation would work for you, or struggled to get started--me too!  Check out this blog post for a bunch of on-ramps and ways to get started that don't involve trying to clear your mind of all thoughts

”Neuroscientists have discovered that when we ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.”   

      --Kelly McGonigal PhD, The Willpower Instinct

7. Breathe

  • When you find yourself facing temptation, build the habit of pausing and taking 4-6 deep breaths

”Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.”

  --Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.


8. Be Kind and Forgiving of Yourself and Play the Long Game

  • We all fall short of our own goals and expectations—and in striving to be kinder to your future self you might  become more aware of your own shortcomings in the moment
  • Remember that your future self benefits from the incredible power of compound interest on all of your positive actions (more on this in James Clear's Atomic Habits)
  • All or nothing thinking is a big cause of doing nothing
  • Don’t sweat your failures, just get back up and get back at it


Digging Deeper

If you're interested in delving deeper into this body of research, and how to apply it to your life, I'd highly recommend any and all of the books below!  And there are a bunch more resources and tools that you can access an

Sharing your thoughts and accessing our resource library

I'd love to hear any thoughts and reflections you have about your own journey, whether you're giving money away, raising it, or just looking to kick some ideas around.  Reach out to me anytime at [email protected]

And if you want to access the frameworks and tools we use in our coaching practice, many of them are available for free in the Joyful Impact resource library.  Just click here to create an account if you don't have one already.


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