"The best way to use your willpower is to stop screwing up!" – Roy Baumeister
Willpower, the capacity to regulate your own behavior, is one of the changeable elements of personality.
There are other qualities, like optimism, gratitude and positive emotions, and there are learnable skills such as improved communication and a multitude of different habits that can be learned and developed, but all of them require some degree of willpower in order to make them your own.
But willpower is also a limited resource. Just as you cannot engage in endless physical exercise – eventually your muscles fatigue to the point where you need to stop – you also cannot engage in actions that require the continuous application of will. Like physical strength and endurance, you can grow your willpower but you have to respect your present limitations as you do so.
You have to set priorities and decide which behaviors you most need to change.
As Baumeister clearly states in the quote above, the most useful application of willpower is in stopping bad behavior.
What distinguishes people with a high capacity for self-regulation from those with less capacity for self-regulation is that the former don't spend very much time resisting temptation. They set up their lives in such a way that they naturally avoid problems and temptations. This creates a life with much less stress and more room for positive, expansive application of their willpower.
I've written before about how too many choices can create a great deal of stress and anxiety. This isn't an argument for some kind of fascist limitation of choice. The wide array of possibilities that we enjoy in America today are a wonderful testament to individual liberty and (still somewhat) free markets.
But they also create problems. There are many temptations, distractions and endless potential wastes of a person's time. Kids doing their homework on a computer are easily drawn to check their e-mail, Facebook, or some other webpage in the middle of their work. Cell phones ring and an actual in-person conversation is interrupted. Satisfying, purposeful work is pre-empted by momentary desires or less important tasks.
Shopping for a simple article of clothing, you can be faced with dozens of brands and styles that can take literally hours to sort through – if you get caught up in it.
Holding yourself to a healthy diet with today's cornucopia of high fat, high sugar, yummy but unhealthy foods can be a challenge in itself. Sodas that used to be a 6-ounce special occasion are now sucked down in 64-ounce big gulp doses. Kids are inundated with cultural pulls toward bad behavior, drugs and early and promiscuous sex while simultaneously getting the message that if you don't fit the perfect image of beauty or success you aren't worthy of anything.
The mountain of distractions that can face a person can be as tangled as the Gordian knot, as unpredictable and unmanageable as a rolling cannon loosed on the deck of a ship at sea.
If you try to untie that knot, tangle by tangle or chase the loose cannon down as it careens from one end of the ship to the other you will be overwhelmed or even destroyed by the effort.
Alexander famously dealt with the Gordian knot by "untying it" with a stroke of his sword. A cannon that is secured before setting sail requires no effort to still it.
This is what using your will in advance of conflict or temptation can do for you.
One way of achieving this is to establish certain non-reversible decisions. You probably have some of these already. The traditional marriage vows contain one: "until death do us part." That means that you are both agreeing that this is it, no matter what – even if someone who seems like a better catch comes along, or if times get hard, or you just don't get along like you used to.
There are times when divorce is a very good thing – violence or unwillingness to face substance abuse are two obvious examples. But this marriage vow is still missing something. What do you do when things are not going so well (a predictable event in most marriages at some point or another)? The non-reversible decision is better stated to include what to do in hard times:
"We will stay together through thick and thin, and if either or both of us ever start to feel like there's something going poorly in our marriage, we will talk about it and get whatever help we need to see us through to a happier relationship, before resentment begins to set in."
There are other decisions that I might suggest: never to use methamphetamines, never to join a violent gang, never to make life-altering decisions while drunk. But you can also refine those decisions to specifics of your diet, limiting how much time you spend just sitting, not swearing around kids (even if they do) and other qualities that can make your life better simply by their absence.
If you can focus your willpower on just a single bad habit that you've developed you can probably find a decision that can allow you to change that habit for the better. Once you've firmly eliminated that bad behavior from your list of possibilities you can move on to the next one.
The improvement in your overall happiness and satisfaction in life from doing this is probably more than you would imagine. When we have a bad habit that we know is hurting ourselves and/or others, it's easy to see its elimination as sort of anticlimactic. You're in the negative zone with the habit; without that habit the best that you can do is zero, no habit. What's exciting about that? Where's the positive achievement?
But the overall effect on your happiness can be tremendously positive. Ask somebody who has successfully overcome an addiction and established their sobriety how much happier they are. Ask somebody who has changed their diet how much better they feel. Ask somebody who has strategically removed certain temptations and troubles from their lives how much less stress they feel, and how much more energy and time they have available to pursue positive, enjoyable goals. The effect is tangible and strong.
Learning self-control is a matter of internalizing rules. The more consistent you make your own habits and environment the easier it is to internalize the rules of your own values and standards. I'm not advocating some rigid, ascetic lifestyle; to the contrary, I see life as a profound and exciting adventure.
But you don't need the chaos of impulsive unpredictability to have excitement, and you don't need pointless danger and mindless risk to live a life where you are enthusiastically exploring the edges of your own comfort zone, and the breadth of what life on this earth has to offer.
The Hippocratic Oath famously states, "First, do no harm." Find one habit that you take for granted that does you or others harm, and focus your willpower on taking it out. That should provide you with some significant leverage toward a stronger, healthier and happier life.