Willpower is a Spoon

Hello my Zebras and Spoonies! Thanks for coming and hanging out with me today, I’m glad that you are here. Today I am going to be talking about willpower and how it is just another one of the metaphorical spoons that we carry around. Well, we probably get more then one, but you get the idea. Generally speaking, willpower is the “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.” [Oxford Languages] In many ways, this is a defining feature of humanity. It is something that we are much more capable of then other animals, yet most people will report that they feel they lack adequate willpower.

First, it is important to understand that willpower drives our ability to suppress impulsive behaviors, make choices and sustain focus. This is something that those of us with ADHD often feel we are greatly lacking in because we are impulsive, have difficulty with choices and difficulty sustaining focus. The good news is that no matter what level your willpower is at, there are things that you can do to improve it. Just like any other brain activity, the more that you engage the skill, the more the brain will dedicate neurons and neuro pathways to improving upon that skill. Willpower is no different.

But it is different than learning how to ride a bike because it is kind of like having a battery (or spoons). When you start your day, you get a finite amount of it and once you’ve used it up you’ll have to go through the process of recharging that battery before you can expend that energy again. Like every energy that we produce, there is a metabolic cost to produce it. This is why it is finite. And just like every other energy that we produce, we can have times that we are not able to make as much of it because our bodies had a high metabolic demand elsewhere and those resources are no longer available to make the required energy. This is why people experience decision fatigue and why they find decisions more difficult to make when they are stressed or tired. Same for suppressing impulsive behaviors and for staying focused.

The thing about willpower is that it is always about making a choice. When we are suppressing an impulsive behavior, we are making the choice to not follow that impulse, to not give into the urge. When we are maintaining our focus we are really making the choice to stay on task and then making to choice to come back to the task every time we are distracted or tempted. Focus is the repeated choice to continue with a task. Willpower is really about having the energy to make choices. This might seem like a weird thing to spend so much time on, but it is important.

When we are looking at improving our willpower, there are three ways that we can go about it. The first is to engage in exercises that help us improve the amount of willpower we have available. The second is to avoid using willpower on trivial matters, but instead only spending it where it matters. And the last is about refilling that battery and restoring the willpower. So, how do we go about doing those things? Let’s look at each.

Willpower can improve with practice. Engaging in the active choice to do something that is different then your impulse. It is about making your brain shift gears and do something that you normally wouldn’t. Pick one thing and focus on that as your exercise until that thing becomes a new habit, then pick something else. You could fix your posture every time you think about it until you reach the point that you no longer slouch. You could use your off hand rather then your dominate hand to open the door until that becomes the habit. Engaging in these kinds of small choices is about repressing the impulsive, habit brain and forcing our brain to change to another way of doing things. Since it’s something for practice, you should pick something that isn’t emotionally charged. You can work on those things once you’ve gotten your willpower built up. Do these exercises on days when you don’t have things going on or when you’re not feeling intensely stressed. These exercises will use up your willpower so you don’t want to engage in these exercises on days that you are going to need that will power for something else. It’s best if you do them on a baseline or average kind of day.

The next way that you can increase the amount of willpower available is by being more mindful of how you are spending it. Just like any of our spoons, it is important to consider how and when we are spending them so we get the most out of them. Making anything routine and choice free that can be will make more willpower available for you to use on other, more important, stuff. This is why people find habits so comforting and why it is stressful when someone interrupts or disrupts a routine or habit unexpectedly. There is a metabolic cost to breaking your routines and habits. That’s why changing your habits is so hard. But being mindful of the way that you set up your routine and habits can go a long way to improving the amount of available willpower. Limit the number of choices that you need to make when you are getting ready for your day. This is why wearing the same kind of clothing every day is a habit that many people develop. It makes for one less thing to choose in the start of their day. So, yeah, there is benefit to having the same coffee and same breakfast every day. Save your choices for things that matter. But being mindful of your routine and habits means making sure that they are healthy. If you’re going to be eating the same breakfast every day, you want to be sure that it is one that is going to be nutritionally sound.

The other way that you can reduce the number of choices you are making is by having other people make choices for you. If you are going to go this route, it is important that you talk to the other person before hand so that they are aware of what you are doing. After all, you are going to be asking them to give basically give you some of their willpower. It can be as simple as having someone else laying out your clothing for the day or deciding what you will eat when you got to a restaurant. This can be a way to save energy when you go out with friends. Tell your friend that making the choices for you will save you spoons and allow you to do more while you’re out or stay out longer or it might be what makes it so you can go out in the first place. This can be a very powerful option to use when you are feeling low on spoons or overly stressed. Just like with everything else in life, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The last thing that you can do to make sure that you have willpower available is to make sure that you’re recharging your battery. And believe me, I know that this can be easier said than done. But seriously, taking care of yourself is going to help generate more willpower. Make sure that you’re getting proper nutrition and that you’re getting good sleep. Research has shown that these two things go a long way in restoring someone’s willpower. Those of us with chronic illness will also need to be doing what we can to manage our symptoms. If we are in a flare, that’s going to have a metabolic cost which will mean there will be less resources available for everything else like willpower. This is why brain fog is such a common thing for us. We use the resources for other things and there isn’t anything left for the braining.

So, remember that your willpower is another spoon. It is a super important ability to have available to us if we what to be successful. Because it is so important, I think it should be considered the Golden Spoon. After all, a lot of really important things depend on us having willpower to spend. Need to make a doctor’s appointment? Got to have willpower to do it. Need to focus during a lecture or meeting? That’s going to take willpower. What to get out of bed today? Willpower. Every choice that we make comes back to having willpower. If we want to be making good choices we need to have the willpower available to do it. Otherwise, we are going to fall back on impulses and habits because that what our brain does on auto pilot.

And just like every other spoon, the Gold Spoon is going to be variable. There is nothing you can do to prevent this because there are way too many variables that factor into this to get it the same every day. That means there are going to be good days and there are going to be bad days. Just like with everything else. You’re going to have decision fatigue. It will happen. When those moments come, you’re going to fall back onto your habits and routines. This is another reason that it is so important to make sure that we are mindful about what habits and routines we are creating. Because we want to make sure that the safety net that our brain uses (habit and routine) is actually safe and is going to help us. In the end, it will be our habits and routines that will decide if we are successful because when you have chronic illness, the low spoon days come on a pretty regular basis.

Once you’ve got your willpower built up and you’ve strengthened your skill set with practice you can start to take on the things that really matter. That means taking a close look at those daily habits and routines. Ask your self if each step in your routine is helpful or hurtful. Ask the same about your habits. Choose one thing at a time to focus on for change. This means making improvements in little baby steps. But over time, you can mindfully create daily habits and routines that will serve as that healthy safety net you need when the Golden Spoon isn’t available.

Well, that’s about it for my rambling today. Thanks for coming and spending some time with me. If you like what you read, click on that like button. It really does help! Until we talk again, you take care of yourselves!

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