Why willpower fails us

The Tribune (NZ) - - BACKYARD BANTER - ROB STOCK rob.stock@fair­fax­me­dia.co.nz

Can’t con­trol your spend­ing?

Don’t blame your weak willpower.

Blame your wrong-headed idea of what willpower is.

Aca­demics from Stan­ford Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Zurich found some­thing strange about peo­ple.

Those who be­lieved willpower was ‘‘weak­ened’’ by use were more likely to binge eat, binge on TV, and binge spend.

While those who be­lieved willpower was not weak­ened by use were less likely to fall into a cy­cle of self-de­nial fol­lowed by splurge.

The old ac­cepted the­ory was that willpower was de­pleted by use, a bit like a per­son get­ting tired dur­ing run­ning a foot race.

After willpower had been ex­erted, it needed a jolly good rest to re­cover.

Worse, self-re­straint was fol­lowed by that ten­dency to overindulge. Us­ing your willpower could be dan­ger­ous!

But if the US-Swiss aca­demics are right, and willpower is more like a mus­cle that does not tire but gets stronger with use, a lit­tle neu­rolin­guis­tic self-re­pro­gram­ming is in or­der for many of us.

So, re­peat after me: ‘‘When I

use my willpower it does not weaken me.’’

‘‘My willpower grows stronger the more I use it.’’

‘‘I will save more money. I will spend less.’’

Feel stronger? I didn’t think so, which is a shame, be­cause peo­ple need strong willpower more than ever be­fore.

If I stopped typ­ing now, and in­stead ap­plied to Har­money for a $15,000 loan to spend on a gi­ant bouncy cas­tle for my gar­den, I would get it eas­ily. I bet I would also be able to buy the bouncy cas­tle within an hour.

We live in a world where the in­ter­net has be­come the largest ‘‘open all hours’’ shop­ping mall and loan shop in hu­man his­tory.

For­tu­nately, we also live in an era when we can au­to­mate willpower.

The best ex­am­ple of au­to­mated willpower is Ki­wiSaver, de­liv­ered to us by a govern­ment that didn’t think we had any.

But you can au­to­mate sav­ings your­self. All you do is de­cide what you want to save, and how, for ex­am­ple dripfeed­ing $500 a month into a sav­ings ac­count, or NZX’s Smartshares, or an or­di­nary su­per fund.

For those still with mort­gages, up­ping mort­gage re­pay­ments is a form of au­to­mated sav­ing.

All we have to do is work out our level of am­bi­tion to set the level of our au­to­mated willpower.

I rec­om­mend am­bi­tion-set­ting on three time-frames: short-term (sav­ing for Christ­mas), medium-term (build­ing up that emer­gency rainy day fund), and long-term (clear­ing the mort­gage/sav­ing for re­tire­ment).

Robo-willpower is help­ful, but it is com­ple­men­tary to hu­man willpower.

We still all have to de­velop our own willpower to avoid slip­ping into that cy­cle of self-de­nial fol­lowed by binge, or hav­ing a spend-up when we feel chuffed at how much we’ve saved. And for that, it seems, we have to learn to see willpower dif­fer­ently.

‘‘We live in a world where the in­ter­net has be­come the largest 'open all hours' shop­ping mall and loan shop in hu­man his­tory.’’

Willpower train­ing: ‘‘I will NOT eat those cakes, I will NOT eat those cakes...’’

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