When you fail to meet expectations you set for yourself, how does it make you feel? For example, say you’ve made a commitment to an art challenge like the 100 Day Project or Inktober and you miss one day. What comes up for you? What are you thinking?

Can you recognize the true success you’ve experienced by showing up every day but one? Or does shame and/or guilt show up loudly pointing out that one missed day? If you relate to the latter, you are actually less likely to keep showing up for your art. 

Today is all about willpower and how it helps (or hurts) our ability to show up more for our art. I just read a research-based book on willpower and let me tell you, we are doing it wrong. 

Hey there! 👋 I’m Carrie. Here on Artist Strong I help self-taught artists who have a home studio, feeling stuck with their art, move from wondering what’s next to confidently expressing themselves through unique, original art. To date, thousands have joined the community.

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In the example I just gave, many tell me the first time they miss a day in a challenge it can be really hard to keep going because they already failed their expectations. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls this the “what the hell effect” in her book The Willpower Instinct (affiliate link) which I highly recommend and I’ve linked below. Essentially it’s the idea that feeling bad leads to giving in. If we stop completely and don’t return to the challenge, we can better ignore the discomfort we feel about missing a day in the challenge.

In the short run, we can avoid the discomfort or pain of not following through on the challenge every day.

Of course, that doesn’t alleviate the pain we feel when we stop showing up for art.

This book has upended the way I think about willpower and has loads of implications for our art. So let’s define it and discuss strategies you can implement today to help you show up more for your art.

I always thought of willpower (I’m being slightly uncomfortably, transparent here) as something we all had, and I even attributed integrity, and good character to it. Exerting willpower was a sign of strength. And then, of course, that also meant being without willpower was a sign of weakness.

Can you see how perfectionist this definition is? It’s very black-and-white and creates an impossible standard for me to live by. Not only that, it’s a powerful set up to induce shame when I can’t exert enough willpower because the lack of willpower is something I equated with weakness.

Whoa. I never took the time to unpack this until I read The Willpower Instinct. Now I know differently. The American Psychological Association describes willpower as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”

McGonigal uses another word interchangeably with willpower: self-control.

McGonigal describes willpower, or self-control, as being managed by three parts of our brain. She describes these regions by their jobs: “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want.”

The “I will” and “I won’t” are the two sides to self-control, but we also need to remember what we really want. I’d like to binge the Great British Bake Off episodes again and eat cookies but I really want Artist Strong to be a space that helps creative strive. We need to “to find motivation when it matters.” That is the “I want” part of willpower.

Think about what this means for your art. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding your studio even though deep down, you know you want to spend more time making art. It means nothing is wrong: you’re wired to behave this way and simple awareness of this fact, and that you’re making a decision that uses willpower will make it easier to show up and make more art!

And the even better news is, we can train our brains to have more willpower.

What depletes your willpower

Before we jump into more strategies for strengthening your willpower, let’s discuss what depletes it.

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 And before we go further I’d love you to take a guess. Type deplete – and then list one or two things you think deplete our willpower in the comments below.

OK, ready? Great. I don’t think anyone will be surprised by these, but here goes: stress, fear, shame, and lack of sleep, all contribute to decreasing our willpower. And relevant to this conversation, research shows people who use willpower run out of it. So, when you’re already depleted and running low, it’s a lot easier to run out of willpower.

Let’s address stress first. So many people in this community are caregivers to parents, spouses, children, grandchildren. This is a huge responsibility that requires oodles of self-control. (Certainly some days more than I have when it comes to chasing my toddler). And what if that loved one is sick, or suffers from dementia? This is not easy. So when you finally have a minute to work in your sketchbook, and you can choose that or watch a show that feels escapist, it’s way easier to choose your favorite streaming service. Your brain is taxed and cries for rest. It is normal to have a limited willpower for your art when life is hard.

Unfortunately instead of giving ourselves grace when life gets hard and busy and stressful, we can tend to beat ourselves up about it, because we should just choose to show up and make our art. And that leads to two other factors that limit our willpower.

If you’re experiencing shame or fear your willpower is depleted, which means it’s way harder to be motivated and work with the “I want” part of our brain. As adult learners, we can feel really uncomfortable learning something new. It can lead to a state of heightened vulnerability, and make us feel scared to share our art. 

What if someone doesn’t like my work? What if they laugh? Or judge that I make time for drawing or painting? Or, what if I’m wasting my time and I’ll never be any good? When our inner critic is in full fear and shame mode it is really hard to show up every day for an art challenge, or an online class you’re enrolled in. And when we don’t show up and feel bad, or even shame around it, that depletes us even further. It’s why I’ve heard too many people say, “why do I bother?”

Anecdotally, McGonigal found that being regularly exposed to the news or true crime podcasts was triggering states of fight or flight in her students, limiting their willpower. The stimuli we take in can trigger fear states even when we don’t consciously feel afraid.

The last willpower depleting state I’ll speak of is being tired. Man, when I gave birth to my daughter, did I underestimate the amount of sleep I would lose! I was so tired and anxious at one point that even when I had time to sleep, I couldn’t. And there was zero art making going on then. I barely had the willpower to do anything when I had a moment to myself.

When we are tired and not getting sleep, it is going to be really hard to show up in that studio of yours. And that is completely normal.

I hope by normalizing these experiences and seeing that they are not a sign of your weakness but a sign of drained willpower that you feel kinder to yourself in these moments.

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 Which one is depleting you most right now? If you feel comfortable, share in the comments below.

Strengthen your willpower

Now let’s discuss how to restore our willpower as well as strengthen it. Then I have three strategies from the book you can use to show up more for your art starting today.

One simple, but not always easy, tool that improves your willpower are mindfulness practices like meditation. Even five minutes of daily guided meditation can do wonders to restore your brain. And for all my active types out there – there are walking meditations, as well as seated ones that you can test and try.

Another big one McGonigal emphasizes is slowing your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute. Both of these strategies change your physiological state and help you move from stress to calm. When we are in flight or fight mode our willpower essentially turns off. 

Being active outside, such as an active walk around the block even for five minutes can also reset your stress and boost your motivation.

Lastly, a nap and or a good night’s sleep can also be a powerful way to boost your willpower.

What do you think? Not every practice is going to work for the life you lead. For example, I can’t change whether I got sleep when I was parenting an infant. But I can employ other practices. 

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 Could you start using one of these practices to help you show up more in your studio? Tell me which one would actually work for you and why in the comments below.

So how can we employ strategies that help us strengthen our willpower muscle and get us in the studio?

I want to be clear that doing these practices helps you strengthen your willpower and thus, will help you have more bandwidth to exercise your “I want” willpower and show up for your art. This is about incorporating strategies into your life that help you stay out of flight or fight more for longer periods of time, thus allowing the willpower parts of your brain to turn on and stay on and available to you more often.

How to strengthen your willpower

The first strategy I want to share is to use your mornings wisely. Research found we have the most self-control in the morning, so if you want to make art every day and can make time first thing, bring that coffee or breakfast to the studio! Even 15 minutes can make a big difference in your output and ability to show up for your art.

Another thing we can do is use the promise of reward. One of the strategies that is most effective at intervention for drug and alcohol recovery is called the fishbowl. Patients who passed their drug tests had the chance to draw a slip of paper from a bowl. Half the slips had very small prizes and one slip had the big prize of $100. The remaining slips just had the following text: keep up the good work.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, I mean this bowl was filled with mostly one dollar prizes, but it is motivating. One study had 83% of patients remain for the entire 12 weeks of treatment. Those receiving standard treatment, only 20% stayed. 80% of fishbowl participants passed all of their drug tests compared to 40% of patients with standard treatment.

And, it worked better than paying patients for passing drug tests.

I spent the time sharing this because we can use the fact that our brains prefer unpredictable rewards to our advantage.

Create a fishbowl for a month of studio time. Make 30 slips. 15 slips have words of affirmation, 14 have small rewards, and one slip has the reward of $50 or $100, for example. Each day you show up in the studio you get to choose a slip.

By the end of the month you could have some cash for some new art supplies! And if you need added accountability, make sure a loved one keeps an eye on those slips for you.

It sounds so simple and silly, which is why I took the time to share the research behind the strategy. It was effective for one of the worst things imaginable: addiction. It motivated and helped addicts remain sober. That’s so powerful. And we have a chance to unlock that motivation for ourselves, and our art, too.

The third strategy I’ll share today before we wrap up is another simple in theory practice but harder to apply: we need to forgive ourselves when we give into the temptation and choose anything, including chores, over our art.

Being self compassionate actually reduces guilt and increases personal accountability. And that second ingredient is absolutely key to showing back up for your art when you’ve taken a break from your latest art challenge or online class.

This is counter to the beliefs I’ve had as a perfectionist. Stress helps me finish. Or being hard on myself will help me push to achieve more. This is what I (maybe you too?) was socialized to believe. But this is literally not how our brain works and actively depletes our willpower.

I want to leave you with one more bonus strategy to help you show up and make more art.

First a big thank you to today’s sponsor:

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 Today’s video is brought to you by the workshop How to Create Art from your Imagination.

If you are creative who has had a studio space for a while, but feel stuck, like learning gaps are holding you back from making the art that captures your unique style, watch my workshop: How to Create Art from your Imagination, for free. You can watch it as soon as you sign up, so grab that link below to get started.

The fourth and bonus strategy I’ll offer today is to work with your future you.

Avoiding the studio we often will say, “Tomorrow I’ll go.” What I’m really saying is tomorrow future Carrie will exert more willpower to show up for her art than I am currently.

I have a question. Do you really believe that?

When McGonigal recommends writing a letter to future you describing all that you’ve accomplished or what it would look like to be doing what you want to be doing, she admits even spending time imagining yourself in the future showing up for your art has a measurable impact.

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽 I’d love you to write to your future you in the comments today. What will your future you do to help you show up more for your art? What does it look like? I want to make sure we wrap up today with you taking more action and showing up more for your art.

If you are resonating with today’s video, please like and subscribe to Artist Strong. It helps me get in front of more of the right people to help as many creatives as I can.

And if you are a self-taught artist who has a home studio but feels stuck and like yet another online tutorial won’t get you where you want to go, I’d love to speak with you. 

If you’re looking to integrate art into your life and confidently express yourself through unique, original art, choose a time from my calendar to discuss how I can help you.

The big AHA

Now here’s the BIG aha I’ve been saving until just now. I wonder if this has crossed your mind learning about the research we’ve discussed today…

Your art practice can be a willpower strengthening exercise.

Art is meditative and calming, which means it brings us out of states of physiological distress the way meditation and slowing our breath does. These are strategies McGonigal opens the book with as great methods of strengthening your so-called willpower muscle.

And personally I’ve always found that when I show up regularly for my art, I have more headspace and presence for the people around me, and if I really think about it, more self-control over the number of tahini chocolate chip cookies I gobble up each day.

Additionally, showing up for 15 minutes near daily even makes it easier for me to randomly have days where I work for an hour or more when I’m gifted that time, without having to exert willpower to do it. I make more time and more space for my art the more I do it and it doesn’t feel as hard to show up. That’s willpower in action.

So not only can we exercise our willpower to build a regular artist practice to show up and make more art, making art will enhance our willpower to improve other areas of our lives.

It’s never been a joke to me when I say people showing up for their art will change the world.

And making art may just be the superpower you’ve always wanted and didn’t realize you’ve had all along.

Today we discussed our notion of what willpower is, and how it works is, well, wrong. Don’t let that perfectionism of yours take the wheel and convince you otherwise.

Remember that there are things that both deplete and strengthen our willpower, and that we can harness strategies like the fishbowl to show up more for this art we care about. And ultimately having self compassion gives us more willpower and lets us live a better life.

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽What’s your big AHA from today’s conversation? Be sure to share it in the comments below. As always thank you so much for watching, be sure to like and subscribe to Artist Strong if today’s conversation helped you. 

And remember: 

proudly call yourself an artist. 

Together, we are Artist Strong.