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the power of the will

August 1, 2011

I’ve been obsessed with this little tidbit on willpower from the NYTimes Health Section since I read it in 2007. (Actually, when I searched for the internet for the article, I was astonished to realize that it was from that long ago and that I’ve been thinking about it since then.) I ran across the idea that willpower is a finite resource again recently in this Science and Religion article. Though they are not entirely sure why, scientists tells us that willpower gets depleted over the course of the day, but that it can be a) replenished by sleep, b) improved by maintaining steady blood sugar, and c) developed through using it.

I’ve certainly seen evidence of all these things in my life. I’m pretty sure those late night snacks I just can’t resist, particularly the more tired I am, are entirely responsible for the ring of fat around my waistline (well, that and my grandmother’s genes). Even during the day, anyone who has dieted or even just missed a meal knows that the resulting drop in blood glucose makes everything harder. And I believe that I have succeeded, particularly in the last year, in increasing my daily available store of willpower by quite a bit, simply by exercising it.

I have been in pain every day now for 507 days, or 1 year, 4 months and 20 days. For the first four months, I was in pain from a massive calcaneous break and the ensuing surgery. After that I was in pain from breaking up the scar tissue and retraining the muscles and connective tissues to move again. I don’t need crutches anymore, but I sometimes think I could do with a good cane. Walking simply hurts no matter what I do. Maybe it’s the metal plate and seven screws, maybe it’s muscles and tendons damaged by inflammation that has just gone on for too long. This piece from the same NYT “Well” Blog says ongoing pain can cause “changes in the central nervous system and spinal cord that cause pain to become amplified and persistent even after the injury has gone away.” I don’t know why. I just know it hurts, and I know every time I either have to or want to walk somewhere I have to work pretty hard to remind myself that it will be worth it, and even harder to do it without getting grumpy.

The amount of willpower it takes not to let this injury stop me, to get out and about and do everyday things, to exercise despite the pain, and not to get down about it, is huge. I know that I did not have as much of it at the beginning as I do now; I know that an afternoon glass of chocolate soymilk to replenish my glucose levels helps a lot; and I know that I require more hours of sleep a night than I would be able to get if I were as fully employed as I would like to be (I believe we call that a silver lining).

And it’s not just in dieting, exercising, and temperament that willpower has it’s advantages. Stanislavsky wrote that acting draws on three main motive forces: thought, feeling, and will. I have found that it’s hardest to convince my students of the value of the last one, but more and more I think it’s the most important one. Sometimes an actor doesn’t understand intellectually what a script or director calls for, but she has to say it or do it anyway, and with conviction. Sometimes an actor’s feelings are very different from the feelings the character is supposed to have, but she still has to experience the moment and to make it meaningful. Sometimes an actor doesn’t think she has the physical or mental resources to give a seventh performance this week everything it requires, but she has to get out there and entertain. And she can find the ability to do so through willpower.

It’s a great life lesson for artists too, who are trying to get noticed in an overcrowded industry with far more supply than demand. Success as an artist is often a war of attrition – every day other artists with whom you are competing for those too-few jobs get tired and quit. Having the willpower to simply stay in the game can give you a real edge. In my case, strengthening my willpower because of my injury has also made me more willing to put myself out there to get work, more confident in promoting myself, and more sure that it will all pay off.

So whether you are having trouble sticking to a diet or an exercise program, finding that you lose your temper a little more easily at night, or simply trying to do something hard, remember that you can improve your willpower with regular sleep, a little sugar hit, and a lot of practice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bill Chase permalink
    August 1, 2011 3:23 pm

    As someone who is self-employed 4 times over, I’ve often think that I have a limited number of “motivations” in a day. How many times can I undertake something new? Prepare for an audition, prepare for teaching, write, audition, teach, run, cook. Organize a mailing, make a phone call, take a trip to the bank or grocery store, sort the scary mail. How many times can I get myself going on a new thing? I guess that’s basically willpower. And it’s much easier to do more when I’ve slept, when I’ve eaten. But it’s also easier when I have a carrot out in front of me: a to-do list, a friend waiting to run, a buddy to swap acting stories with. I find that keeping these carrots positive and SUCCESS oriented, rather than FAILURE oriented, keeps me hopping. So I like to create positive carrots for myself, and that helps me get past the hard stuff. Maybe a good way to “develop my willpower through using it.”

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