Bottom Line Up Front: This is the summary and one major actionable take-away from another great Huberman Lab podcast about how to increase willpower and tenacity.
As with all things from Andrew Huberman, you should listen to this episode (or watch it). Here is the quick summary:
- Tenacity and willpower can be defined as the ability to absolutely do something or absolutely NOT do something.
- Example: I absolutely will go the gym after work despite the fact that I am tired and have other things I would rather do.
- Example: I absolutely will not eat one of those donuts that my co-worker put out in the break room even though I know it will taste good and I will enjoy eating it.
- Routine tasks or habits, even hard ones don’t demonstrated willpower or tenacity. Having the discipline to go to the gym every weeknight night after work as part of a routine isn’t necessarily a willpower or tenacity test because it’s just what you do/it’s routine.
- There is a debate about whether or not you can deplete willpower or if it’s limited.
- You may have heard about studies done (I definitely have) by Baumeister where researchers put a plate of freshly-baked cookies or radishes in a room but didn’t permit subjects to eat them. Then they gave them a test of perseverance (solving a puzzle which is unsolvable) during which the group who had to resist the cookies did worse on (they quit trying to solve it much sooner), which theoretically demonstrated a depletion of willpower.
- There are other recent studies done by Dweck, which discount this. So it’s not settled. Read this HBR article if you want more on the studies.
- There is an area in your brain called the Anterior Midcingulate Cortex that is in direct coordination with all the areas needed for tenacity and willpower in the brain.
- You can train it and have better willpower and tenacity by challenging it. It must be by doing something you don’t want to do or by NOT doing something you want to do as discussed previously.
- You can, of course, do this routinely in every day life, but you can do it in smaller minor ways. Huberman calls these “micro sucks”. I like “willpower snacks” myself.
To do them, you have to find something that there is a high resistance to wanting to do or not wanting to do. Here are some examples I thought of for anyone and for me specifically:
- If you really want to check your phone during a workout (this can be any time) but you leave it untouched until you complete every set and rep. Even harder, next time you are sitting somewhere with nothing else to do but wait (doctor’s office, train ride into work, etc.) leave your phone in your pocket/purse and sit in silence – like we used to do my whole childhood. Just sit, stare, and think. It’s not so bad. Even harder yet, ignore any buzzing or ringing! Just let that message that is probably absolutely meaningless sit there unopened until after your appointment.
- Say you are intermittent fasting and your first meal is at 11 AM. Normally you watch a clock and the minute it turns 11, you eat. I have 100% done this many times. It takes a lot of discipline to follow this pattern routinely. Now instead of eating at 11, on a random day – even better if you are particularly hungry – wait until 11:30.
- You get ready to go for a walk with your dog, get to the door and realize it’s colder than you thought. Instead of getting a hat, gloves, or a warmer jacket like you normally would, you go for the walk as you are and suffer a little (first-world suffering for sure but at least it’s unpleasant).
- You are eating something you really enjoy (it can be healthy, like protein ice cream) and right about when you have the last quarter of it left, you stop eating. Normally you’d absolutely finish it and probably grab another but you just sit there and watch it then throw it away.
- You routinely run a 3-mile loop from your house around the block and end up back at your house. Just when you are about to finish, right when your mind expects to be done because it’s how you always do it, run past the house another half-mile, forcing you to add a mile to the run by the time you get back home. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of doing a unit run in the military that was challenging and had your leader run past the point that you were positive would be the finish line, you know this feeling. If you’ve done this to others (my hand is raised), you trained not only their cardiovascular system but their Anterior Midcingulate Cortex too. It’s really bad when you have no idea when it will end either because once you passed what should have been the finish line, you don’t know where it is! Mind games. So legit.
I think a key to this is it has to be unexpected. If you decide you are going to eat at 11:30 instead of 11 tomorrow for your first meal, you have planned it, i.e. it won’t improve willpower. If right at 10:58 you decide to add 30 minutes, this hurts, is unexpected, and will improve willpower.
I used this a few times myself recently. For example, I added time to an unpleasant weight vest treadmill session right when I was about to finish. I was counting down the time to stop the treadmill and just when I was going to end it, I added eight minutes instead. I also did my morning and evening commute one day without listening to a podcast or reading anything on my phone.
Delaying gratification or cutting it short is what I think I will end up doing more instead of resisting things. It isn’t hard for me to watch people eat candy or donuts at all. Every single day someone in my office thinks they are doing something kind by making their co-workers unhealthier by putting out some sugary food that none of them need (that no one needs). If they put a bowl of drugs, cigarettes or pornography, they’d possibly be fired/definitely corrected, but Halloween candy every day for the three weeks before Halloween and a few weeks after (have to get rid of it, right? Apparently throwing it away didn’t enter anyone’s mind) is not only fine but encouraged. Meanwhile the majority of Americans are overweight and obese. But I digress. Point being, it isn’t hard for me to walk past the candy bowl 20 times a day. Sadly, that bowl of candy or box of donuts if 100% empty at the end of the day (a lot of times before lunch!).
Give it some thought and maybe interject a few willpower snacks into your day to train your Anterior Midcingulate Cortex!
Post any snack ideas, thoughts, questions to the comments below.