For years, I felt like a fraud.
I’m often seen as someone oozing with willpower. After all, I’ve spent the last 25 years mastering several styles of kung fu, including various weaponry. (If you didn’t know that tai chi is a form of kung fu, then you might enjoy reading this article later.)
But here’s the thing: I never felt like someone with willpower.
You know. Like one of *those* people — the ones born with an iron will.
Later, I learned something that changed my life:
The reason I didn’t feel like someone with willpower was because I didn’t actually know what willpower was.
Why You’ve Got More Willpower Than You Think
A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called The Willpower Instinct.
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After reading those three books, I had an “aha” moment.
“I’ve got willpower!” I said to myself.
You’ve got it too. The reason you don’t think you’ve got willpower is because you’re thinking about it all wrong.
What Willpower Really Is
You probably think that willpower is something that some people just have, that it’s something they were born with. And you probably think that it’s something you were NOT born with.
That’s what I thought for years. But it’s not true.
More research has been done on willpower over the last 10 years than in the last 1000.
All of it points to one important conclusion that can totally change your life.
In a nutshell, here’s what the research says: Willpower is a skill.
This is GREAT news for all of us. If someone has willpower, then it’s because they developed that skill through practice.
And this means that literally anyone can develop more willpower.
But wait. Don’t you need willpower to build willpower?
Yes and no. Before we talk about how willpower develops, let’s talk about how willpower gets depleted. Let’s plug the leaks first.
How Willpower Gets Depleted
A famous willpower study was done in the 1990s. Basically, a psychologist named Roy Baumeister figured out an ingenious way to torture college students.
All of the participants were sat down in front of a plate of freshly baked cookies.
Some of the participants were allowed to eat those cookies.
But some of them were asked to eat radishes instead – with the cookies sitting right in front of them
In other words, they had to sit there and choose to eat radishes rather than freshly baked cookies.
But this wasn’t the end of the test.
Afterward, both groups were given puzzles that basically assess your current level of persistence, which is a measure of willpower.
Guess which group did better?
Yep. The group that ate the cookies did much better.
Why? Because it takes willpower to resist eating freshly baked cookies.
In other words, the students depleted their willpower by resisting the temptation of eating the cookies.
Do Cookies Build Willpower?
If you’re thinking, “COOKIES BUILD WILLPOWER!!!” then hold on a second. That’s not exactly what the research showed.
What that study really proved is that flexing your willpower muscles leaves you temporarily depleted.
It’s a lot like weight lifting, really.
In order to resist the temptation of the freshly baked cookies, the students had to flex their willpower muscles. Afterward, they were left depleted.
If you are depleted, but you try to flex your willpower muscles again – then you’re probably going to fail.
But the depletion is only temporary. Understanding this fact is the first step to building more willpower.
By being more strategic with how you spend your willpower, you’ll build it more easily.
It’s important to remember that willpower is needed for both adding and subtracting things. Adding a daily meditation habit requires willpower, and so does subtracting a daily smoking habit.
Where are you spending your willpower? Are you being strategic? Or are you haphazard with the way that you build willpower?
How to Build Willpower
What if the researches had tortured the poor students every day for a few months?
What if, every day, the students had been required to sit there and eat radishes while staring at freshly baked cookies?
What would have happened to their willpower?
It would have grow. Just like a muscle.
Here’s how I grew my own willpower.
My Battle With Willpower
“But Sifu, you’re different!” she said. “You don’t understand how hard it is for us regular people to practice every morning!”
But see, I do understand. I totally understand! I — of all people — understand!
When I was in my 20s, I experienced my first episode of Major Depressive Disorder. As a result, I was left with a lot of bad habits.
I smoked. I slept poorly and woke up late. I ate like crap. I drank too much. I had no energy.
It’s true that I had already earned a black belt in karate by this point. And yes, that requires willpower.
But my willpower muscles had all grown weak and flabby.
I actually started learning qigong and kung fu during this time, but I struggled to practice daily.
So how did I turn things around?
I did it with an exercise called Lifting The Sky.
But I didn’t try to do a 15-minute session, as I had been taught. That was too much. Instead, I started doing it for 2 minutes a day.
Just 2 minutes a day.
Building Willpower 2 Minutes At a Time
At the time, I thought that willpower was supposed to be easy. I thought it was just supposed to flow. Effortlessly.
But willpower was hard for me. Damn hard.
Some days, I forgot to do my 2 minutes, and only realized once I was already in bed.
So I got up and did 2 minutes. That was hard. It probably doesn’t sound hard, but it was like a major battle for me.
But day by day, I kept going. Just 2 minutes.
30 days went by, and I hadn’t missed a day. A winning streak! Believe me, at that time in my life, I needed to win at something.
So I kept going. 60 days went by, and then 90, and before I knew it, I had done 2 minutes a day for about 6 months. I hadn’t missed a single day!
When Willpower Becomes Easy
There is a point when willpower becomes less difficult, when it becomes almost effortless.
That’s the confusing part. I myself was confused for years.
Here’s what helped me understand: Willpower is different than habit.
Do you use willpower to brush your teeth every morning? No, you don’t. Because it’s a habit.
Once you create a solid habit, willpower is no longer necessary. The autopilot flips on. And that’s exactly what you want.
Doing 2 minutes a day flexed my willpower muscles and made them stronger and stronger.
But it also did something else. Eventually, my 2-minute routine became a habit. Once it was a habit, I didn’t need to use willpower any more.
This meant that I had extra willpower leftover to spend on something else. I chose to spend it on practicing for about 15 minutes instead of 2.
And then that built more willpower. And then that became a habit.
You might also enjoy: 10 Reasons to Try Qigong If You Need More Willpower
You see how this works? You see how you can do the same thing?
I recommend that you start with something ridiculously simple, like I did. Pick something that flexes willpower, but can also become a healthy new habit.
In this case, it’s usually better to add a habit than try to subtract. (In other words, add a healthy habit rather than subtracting an unhealthy one.)
So pick a new habit, and do it daily for 30 days. Flex those willpower muscles, get them stronger, and build a habit at the same time.
This is exactly how masters are made — one step at a time. If you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, I could never be a tai chi master,” then stop it! Out with the old way of thinking, and in with the new. Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.