The science be­hind willpower – and how you can strengthen yours


Good Health Choices - - Content - The be­lief that some have buck­ets of willpower and oth­ers none is untruE

In the in­ter­ests of full dis­clo­sure, I checked Face­book about every 10 min­utes while writ­ing this story. I know this be­cause I started not­ing it down… un­til I got dis­tracted from that, too. In the process of writ­ing about willpower, I couldn’t fail to no­tice the irony of my own ten­dency to drift off task reg­u­larly, and that more of­ten than not, so­cial me­dia was where my at­ten­tion landed.

In the age of so­cial net­work­ing, it’s never been eas­ier to de­lay or avoid dif­fi­cult, bor­ing or time-con­sum­ing tasks. The #goals hash­tag might be pop­u­lar on In­sta­gram, but you have to won­der whether we’re more likely to post about our goals than ac­tu­ally set about achiev­ing them – and our love af­fair with so­cial me­dia it­self is partly to blame. Add in fast in­ter­net connections that now al­low us to binge-watch an en­tire TV se­ries rather than wait week-to-week for episodes, not to men­tion the fact that we can get new clothes and hot din­ners de­liv­ered to our door in short or­der, goals that take time to achieve aren’t ex­actly ap­peal­ing.

“Cul­tur­ally, we’ve for­got­ten what it’s like to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion,” says Leanne Hall, a Syd­ney-based in­te­gra­tive psy­chol­o­gist. “As such, we gen­er­ally don’t need to flex our willpower mus­cle that much. What this can mean is that when we do need it, it’s not very strong, so we struggle. Some­times this leads to feel­ings of dis­ap­point­ment and fail­ure, which can then have other neg­a­tive men­tal-health im­pacts.”

If you’ve had your in­ten­tion to get to the gym af­ter work thwarted by Stranger Things or felt your com­mit­ment to writ­ing a novel dis­si­pate as soon as your phone beeps, you’ve prob­a­bly (wrongly) con­cluded that you’re lazy or you have no willpower. But ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, the com­monly held be­lief that some peo­ple have buck­ets of willpower and oth­ers none at all is untrue – which is good news if you’re de­ter­mined to fi­nally quit smok­ing (and bad news if you’re look­ing for more ex­cuses not to try).

“Willpower is an in­for­mal term for self-con­trol, and the def­i­ni­tion of self-con­trol is the abil­ity to de­fer im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion,” says Auck­land­based psy­chol­o­gist and willpower ex­pert Dr Rebecca Stafford, au­thor of The 21 Day Myth: A step by step guide to rapid habit change. “The be­lief that willpower is some kind of fixed or ge­netic char­ac­ter­is­tic that peo­ple ei­ther have or don’t have is a myth. Re­search sug­gests it’s a re­source we all have, and there are things we can do to in­crease it.”

It’s all in the mind

Dr Stafford started delv­ing into the science of willpower when she re­turned to univer­sity fol­low­ing a mar­riage

breakdown, de­ter­mined to make the most of the fresh start and fi­nally fin­ish the stud­ies she’d aban­doned years be­fore. Know­ing that chang­ing her study habits would be in­te­gral to com­plet­ing her qual­i­fi­ca­tion, she sought clar­ity on why she strug­gled to stick to tasks. What be­came ap­par­ent in her re­search was that un­der­ly­ing emo­tions – com­monly a fear of fail­ure or hu­mil­i­a­tion – of­ten play a part in de­plet­ing our willpower.

“The only thing worse than hav­ing a horrible sus­pi­cion that you’re not good enough is hav­ing that sus­pi­cion con­firmed – and that’s the sub­text of pro­cras­ti­na­tion,” ex­plains Dr Stafford. “It’s a form of self-sab­o­tage, and the sub­text of that is: if you don’t try, you can’t fail. Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is ac­tu­ally a rather ter­ri­ble form of hap­pi­ness in­sur­ance.”

And even when you do get past pro­cras­ti­na­tion to get to boot­camp or start mak­ing that quilt, you could aban­don the task pretty quickly. “Even if we’re fi­nally mak­ing progress to­wards estab­lish­ing a habit, we might start say­ing things like, ‘I should have started sooner’ or ‘It’s not good enough’,” says Dr Stafford. “When we beat our­selves up, we think we’re pun­ish­ing our lazi­ness, but we’re ac­tu­ally pun­ish­ing our ef­forts. And if you pun­ish some­thing, you de­crease the prob­a­bil­ity of it oc­cur­ring again, so that makes it harder to start next time.”

It seems willpower is hugely in­flu­enced by your mind­set. Ear­lier this year, a study at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois found peo­ple demon­strated more willpower when they be­lieved they had an un­lim­ited sup­ply of it, and showed a lack of it when they be­lieved it was in short sup­ply.

Hall ex­plains: “In ex­er­cise, there’s a con­cept called an­tic­i­pa­tory reg­u­la­tion, which means that when we know we’re run­ning 10km, for ex­am­ple, we reg­u­late our pace to get our­selves across the fin­ish line. Al­though we get to the end and say, ‘I could not have gone any fur­ther’, we ac­tu­ally could have. If you think you only have a fi­nite amount of willpower, you’ll self-reg­u­late by tak­ing breaks, be­liev­ing that you’re fa­tigued. This is be­cause you in­stinc­tively don’t want to ‘run out of en­ergy’ and not reach the fin­ish line.”

How kind­ness helps

One of the ma­jor drains on willpower is brain fa­tigue, says Stafford. This ex­plains why you might be highly pro­duc­tive at work but find yourself strug­gling to fol­low through on your

‘no snack­ing’ goal when you get home.

In a small French study, peo­ple spent six hours do­ing brain-drain­ing puz­zles, while be­ing asked at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals to choose be­tween get­ting a small sum of money or a larger sum if they waited. As the day pro­gressed, they be­came more likely to take the cash and run. In con­trast, those who spent the day do­ing easy men­tal tasks, such as read­ing, were more in­clined to hold out for the larger cash pay-off. This means sched­ul­ing tasks you typ­i­cally avoid for times when you have a lighter men­tal load, such as first thing in the morn­ing or dur­ing week­ends, might im­prove the like­li­hood you’ll ac­tu­ally com­plete them.

Given the ef­fect emo­tions have on willpower, be­ing kind to our­selves also helps us fol­low through with goals – which makes sense when you con­sider the way peo­ple tend to re­spond to feel­ings of shame. Re­search at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia last year found that over­weight peo­ple weren’t mo­ti­vated to lose weight when they were fat-shamed – in fact, they were more likely to avoid ex­er­cise and con­sume calo­ries to com­fort them­selves. Dr Stafford says self-com­pas­sion, not self-flag­el­la­tion, of­ten results in ac­tion.

“There’s a ton of re­search show­ing that self-com­pas­sion has helped boost ex­er­cise mo­ti­va­tion, re­duce smok­ing and re­duce pro­cras­ti­na­tion in stu­dents,” she says.

She rec­om­mends the fol­low­ing self-com­pas­sion strat­egy to im­prove willpower. “Write down a weak­ness or mis­take, some­thing that makes you feel bad about yourself or that you feel some shame about, and write for three min­utes about it, ex­press­ing kind­ness and un­der­stand­ing to­wards yourself. You can’t beat yourself up and be self­com­pas­sion­ate at the same time.”

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