What is the most important trait for success? I think it is willpower. Yes, luck plays a role. Yes, talent plays a role to a degree. But unless you have willpower to slug through 10 years of intense work that is required to master a skill you will not make it. If you look at just about any major category of problems that people are faced with odds are pretty good that willpower is involved in some way. You might think that willpower is fixed asset, some of us have more of it and some of us less, but it is not.

Willpower is controlled by the prefrontal cortex part of brain located just behind the forehead. Prefrontal cortex is also responsible for focus, abstract thinking and short-term memory. I think it is reasonable to assume that due to genetics some people have better developed prefrontal cortex which makes it easier for them to exert willpower for longer periods of time, focus better and have better short-term memory. You could say that they are genetically pre-disposed for success.

Good news is that research indicates that willpower is a lot like muscle. You can develop it. It is also interesting that, if you exert it too much, like muscle trying to lift too much weight, it will fail. It shines new light on “pick your battles” saying doesn’t it? It also means that if you are not working at it, like muscles, your willpower will atrophy. So how do you go about increasing willpower?

Dr. Roy Baumeister who did research on willpower found in experiments that willpower improves across the board when we exercise it. He did experiment with group of students which were asked to improve their posture for two weeks. After that period these students showed marked improvement in measures of self-control when compared to a group that didn’t work on improving the posture.

In another words exercising self control in any area of your life will be reflected in improved willpower on unrelated tasks like business or programming. You start with small tasks like improving posture or even brushing teeth with opposite hand so you can build up your willpower for bigger tasks. But how does this work, is it really possible?

In early 1970s scientist discovered that brain changed its very structure with each different activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it can better do the task at hand. This fundamental brain property was called neuroplasticity.

“Neurons that fire together wire together”. As you exercise your willpower you actually re-wire your brain. The neurons responsible for willpower develop stronger, “cleaner” more efficient connections and your willpower gets improved. But if you do not exercise it, the connections will weaken and your willpower will be reduced. Use it or lose it literally applies here. Dr. Michael Merzenich is neuroscientist that has done lot of research in area of neuroplasticity.

The key for this to work successfully is close attention to the task being done since that is the key for long-term plastic change. If you do the task automatically the improvements are made but are not long lasting. This is another very strong vote against multi-tasking. Divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting changes in your brain.

But if you have boring work that you dread doing, it will drain your willpower needed for important tasks. How do you address that?

Self-Determination Theory – SDT – indicates that willpower will be depleted less if we think that task we are working on is of our own choosing, i.e. decision to do it is made based on our own deeply held interests rather than decision dictated by other source, societal pressures or external control.

Based on my own experience, I found that you need to convince yourself into believing that tasks that are assigned to you are interesting or beneficial. I used this technique effectively in school to be able to learn dull, boring subjects easier. I would trick myself into believing that they are interesting by finding something in them that interests me or that I think will be useful to me in future. Otherwise I would have hell of time trying to learn anything that I do not find interesting.

Another important component that should not be forgotten is nutrition. In research Dr. Baumeister found that exercising self-control uses lot of energy and that blood glucose levels are connected with self-control. He found that blood glucose levels had dropped in people that were exerting their willpower and that restoring glucose levels replenishes self-control. Study subjects who drank sugar-sweetened lemonade, which raises glucose levels quickly, performed better on self-control tests than those who drank artificially-sweetened beverages, which have no effect on glucose. Seems like that might explains why lot of us programmers are sugar junkies as we wrangle with code all day long…

Intuitively I think it seems logical that there are people predisposed to success. People that have stronger willpower genetically, just like there are people that are taller or have blue eyes. While you can’t get taller you can certainly build up your willpower. As with everything in life it requires hard work and paying attention.

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