Batman’s life sucks.
It does. He has nearly unlimited wealth and freedom as Bruce Wayne and he can never enjoy it. It’s nearly impossible for him to form meaningful relationships without the fear or pain of having that person murdered as a result of their involvement with him. His days are filled with rigorous training and his nights with battles that often come very close to being fatal. He’s eternally haunted by the memory of his parents and I don’t know when he gets any sleep.
So how does he put himself through all that hell? He has serious willpower.
Think how easy it would be for him to say, “You know what? Screw this Batman thing tonight. I’m just going to sit around the mansion, watch TV and eat ice cream in my fabulously expensive pajamas.” He doesn’t though. Even when he gets sick and any normal person would take a day off of a job that doesn’t involve getting shot at he still goes out there to do what has to be done.
Beyond the bottomless pool of money that is Wayne Enterprises it’s that discipline that has enabled Bruce Wayne to become Batman.
So how do we develop discipline like that?
Defining Discipline and Willpower
Though you could probably tease out some minor differences, for now I’m going to use the terms discipline and willpower interchangeably. Boiled down to its essence willpower is the capacity to do something you don’t want to do because you know that it’s the thing that needs to be done. In most cases this involves delaying gratification and suppressing or ignoring our instinctual desires.
When you walk by the big box of donuts at the office and don’t take one even though you want to, that’s willpower. When you really want to go watch TV or play video games but force yourself to sit down and get your work done first, that’s willpower. When the alarm goes off and you would murder someone in order to sleep five more minutes but you get up and go work out, that’s willpower.
This kind of discipline is what keeps us from doing the things that we get the instant gratification from in the understanding that we will get a much bigger benefit by avoiding those behaviors. It’s what keeps Bruce Wayne in cape and cowl instead of parked in front of his Xbox.
Willpower Is a Muscle
Whenever you hear people talk about willpower or discipline you often hear people describe it like it were another invisible muscle somewhere in your body. It’s a really good way to conceptualize it – willpower really does work a lot like a muscle.
Everyone has a different strength of willpower, some are more disciplined than others naturally, practice exercises your willpower and helps you build more of it and, like your physical muscles, your willpower can only exert so much force before it’s fatigued and gives up. In fact, like all your other muscles the strength of your willpower is even affected by your health and the foods you eat.
This may sound like bad news but actually it’s really great. Understanding how our own discipline works means we can work within that system to improve it.
How to Strengthen Your Willpower
When it comes to developing a stronger sense of discipline it all revolves around that concept of treating it like a muscle. We need to remember not only to work it out, but also to make sure we don’t wear it into the ground by expecting too much from it.
Know Your Limits – Like all your muscles your willpower has a limited amount of energy. Once that energy is tapped your willpower isn’t going to be able to do anything until it’s had some time to rest and recover.
Since you know this is the case, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you knew you had to move a piano on Monday night would you go do heavy deadlifts and squats Monday morning? No, you’d be spent by the time you got to the piano and you’d be useless. So don’t do the same thing with your willpower.
If you know you have particularly weak willpower, or are going to be put in a situation where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested, don’t burn it out on little things throughout the day. If you know you’re going to have to turn down dessert later don’t spend all day walking past cookies and donuts. Eliminate the things you can that sap away little bits of discipline so that your reserves are filled for the real tests you know are coming.
Do Your Exercises – Studies have shown that purposefully exercising your willpower actually makes it stronger. Just like with your muscles the key is to know how to exercise it properly and to develop a plan to do so. So what are some ways you can do that?
The easiest way is to set up controlled situations where you know you’ll be tempted by something and then exercising your discipline to avoid it. Start slow here, particularly if you know you don’t have much discipline to begin with. Pick a task you should do but never want to, like meditation, and make yourself do it for a very short time each day – maybe 5 minutes. After a while, build that up until you have the discipline to meditate for 30 minutes each day.
Another extremely easy way is to consciously force yourself to do some little thing you’re not used to doing. For example make a commitment to not use contractions in your speech, to brush your teeth with your opposite hand or sit up more straight. It may not seem like much, but every time you make the conscious decision to do it your work out your willpower just a little and it adds up.
Be careful though – just like with your physical muscles overtraining can lead to problems. I also wouldn’t recommend training to failure. Don’t put out a giant plate of cookies to resist all day only to push yourself too far, give up and gorge on them. Always be mindful of your limits and keep at it and you’ll see improvements.
Stay Fed – Your muscles need energy to function and so does your willpower. Researchers found that study participants who were put through tests exercising their willpower showed decreased blood sugar and glycogen levels as a result of the exercise. As you burn up energy flexing your discipline muscles it makes it harder and harder to keep up.
As it turns out replenishing blood sugar and glycogen stores, with sugar water or orange juice in most of the studies, helped mitigate those effects and allowed participants to do better on subsequent tests of willpower.
That means a couple things. The first is that if you find your willpower waning you might be able to give it a small boost by snacking on something sugary. Now if you’re trying to stick to a strict diet be careful here, that’s not an excuse to go crazy on 10 pounds of candy bars, but a little snack can help.
Second, it means that things that tend to wear out your glycogen stores – stress, lack of sleep, illness etc. – directly deplete your ability to exercise your willpower. Use this to your advantage by going into situations where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested well-fed and rested.
Batman of course may be the exception to this – like I said I have no idea how he finds time to get enough sleep. Once you reach equivalent levels of discipline you can skip meals and never sleep while maintaining an iron will too, until then though you should get your eight hours and take care of yourself.
Stay Happy – I know it’s easier said then done, but your mood also directly affects the strength of your discipline. When you’re in a good, upbeat mood your willpower is stronger and when you’re feeling depressed, upset or angry it’s a lot harder to resist doing things you shouldn’t or force yourself to do things you should.
Thankfully, you probably don’t have to worry about maintaining a second identity or avoiding death on a nightly basis. Even so it can be a bit tough to maintain a positive attitude.
Just like with lifting, music can also give you that extra mental motivation to do what needs to be done. If you’re finding you lack the motivation to sit down and get your work done instead of wasting time on Facebook, put on some of your favorite music and rock out or dance around or whatever you need to do to get pumped. Then sit back down and get stuff done.
Don’t Think About Elephants – Bruce Wayne is definitely haunted by the memory of his parents. It’s part of what defines him. Instead of running from that fact and trying to suppress his anger he accepts it and redirects it into a positive thing as Batman. If he tried to deny all that hate and bottle it up it would eventually consume him.
The same thing happens to us when we try to avoid focusing on something unpleasant – or anything really. It’s like when someone tells you, “Whatever you do, don’t think about [blank].”
You can’t help but think about it. The harder you try to not think about it the harder it is to actually not think about it. Researchers have been doing studies on this effect for a long time and in every case the more we focus on avoiding something, the more difficult it is not to dwell on it.
How does this tie in to willpower?
Discipline, like we said, is the ability to either stop yourself from doing something you want to do, or making yourself do something you don’t want to do. Either way it has to do with overriding your desires. A lot of people think the best way to do that is to try to ignore them. They feel their extreme craving for a pint of ice cream and they jam their metaphorical fingers in their ears and start yelling, “I can’t hear you!”
This doesn’t work though, for the reason we just discussed. The more you try to deny or ignore your craving for bad food or your desire to go watch TV instead of getting your work done the more irresistible it becomes.
Instead of denying it the best course of action is to acknowledge it, decide what to do about it and move on. When you do that those desires lose their bite. Rather than ignoring your craving say, “Hmm, I really want some ice cream. I shouldn’t though, so I’ll go chop up an apple and sprinkle just a little brown sugar on it. That’ll be a lot better in the long run.”
Think of it as Batman style mental jujutsu. By redirecting your desire to play video games and avoid work into a desire to roll up your sleeves and dominate that work so you can go play video games guilt free you take that negative emotion’s power away and make it something positive.
Being Your Own Batman
Will these techniques give you the strength of will to live like Bruce Wayne? Probably not to be honest, but I’m not certain any human could. What these techniques will do is help you build up your discipline until you can become your own personal Batman.
Being your own Batman means having the fortitude to get the things you need to get done done. It means having the willpower to stop doing all the things you need to stop and to do all the things you need to do. It means becoming strong enough to make your own life and the lives of those around you as best as you possibly can.
Have you used any of these techniques to improve your own discipline? Do you have any other techniques you’d like to add that have worked well for you? Share them in the comments!
Photo Credit: Gideon Tsang