Students are bombarded with distractions and decisions all day, at school and at home. Although we frequently prefer systems to plain, old willpower, sometimes the latter is the only solution. For a student to say ‘yes’ to one thing (math homework), he or she must say ‘no’ to many things (video games, texting, sleeping, etc.). That decision requires our old, fickle friend: Willpower.
Willpower is fickle for several reasons. First, it is one of the first brain functions to go when we are stressed or sleep-deprived. Second, the will is heavily influenced by environmental factors. In other words, the presence of better alternatives depletes our precious willpower reserves. Please see the infamous marshmallow experiment if you don’t believe me. Lastly, willpower works like a gas tank, meaning we only have a finite amount to use throughout the day. Spend all your reserves during your first-period math test, and you might find it challenging to focus for the next few classes.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Like many skills in our executive function repertoire, willpower can be improved through awareness, environmental design, and habitual action. For ideas on environmental design, please see our blog on how the environment influences behavior or the danger of always on. For habits and routines, see our posts on tiny habits and the power of momentum. Today’s post, however, will focus on improving willpower through awareness. Here are our three principles to follow:
The emotions behind an urge can tell us a lot about our physical and emotional states. For instance, a student finishes the last body paragraph of her English essay, and it is time to start the conclusion, but suddenly, almost unconsciously, she picks up her cell phone to go through social media apps. Another student, grinding through his homework, bolts from the room to the kitchen, suddenly feeling peckish when he reaches the analysis section of his lab report. When students suddenly pick up their phones to check TikTok or grab a handful of chips from the pantry, what might they be avoiding?
Awareness increases with stillness. In these moments of seemingly instinctual action, we encourage students to pause. Although it seems counterproductive, one of the best ways to improve willpower and get back to work is simply sitting with the urge, and examining it for what it’s worth. This is why coaching is so effective for many students with ADHD. Initially, a good coach simply holds up a mirror, allowing the student to see his or her habits and routines in all their glory. Awareness is the first step toward getting ahead and staying ahead. Parents can play this role, too. Next time your student chooses the shallows of social media over the task at hand, simply and calmly, ask them to think about the feeling behind the urge.
Be Okay with Boredom
Too many students aren’t okay with boredom. As we discuss in our post about the danger of being always on, the modern student lives in a world of constant stimuli, robbing them of the willpower muscle. It’s kind of like the movie Wall-E, where the humans get so comfortable that they forget how to walk around or converse with one another. With screens around every corner, we never have to be bored; we never have to wait. That’s a huge problem though, because we lose the ability to wait, the ability to be bored when we need it most (studying).
Therefore, one of the best ways to improve willpower is to practice being bored. In other words, the act of intentionally waiting is a great workout for your brain. Encourage students to give themselves thirty minutes before streaming that new Netflix show or 24 hours before making an online purchase. Often, they will notice that the act of waiting, even just for a few minutes, makes an activity less appealing and exciting. Like sitting with an urge, pausing before giving in to an impulse may seem downright impossible. So, start with just one or two small impulses a day, especially those that hit you most frequently. Willpower gains will soon follow.
Hit the (Willpower) Gym
Last but not least, hit the willpower gym often. Willpower is a muscle that needs to be trained like any other. Continuing on the Wall-E allusion from the preceding paragraph, many screen-wielding teenagers (and adults) have let their willpower muscles atrophy in the land of always on. It’s time to hit the gym.
We recommend students pick one activity each day to treat as willpower training: something that requires attention, focus, and patience. Or, to quote psychologist William James, Any activity that “arrests the attention and satisfies the soul,” will do. The possibilities are endless here. Some students go the zen route with breath-work or meditation, while others prefer running or weightlifting—any activity with less stimulation than the everyday.
Willpower is vital for success but tricky to practice. Our all-star team of academic coaches and tutors is here to help. Willpower and concentration are just aspects of our unique executive functioning skill program. Reach out today to learn more!