If someone could harness and bottle willpower, no doubt they would make a fortune. The notion of willpower can mean different things for different people so let’s take a closer look at the subject.
Willpower can be defined as exercising the strength to act, or not to act, in pursuit of a goal. It is usually considered synonymous with self-discipline, the ability to train and control oneself over myriad thoughts, feeling and impulses, usually for the sake of self-improvement.
While it is commonplace to hear people say they have little or no willpower, I think a reassessment is in order with an eye to the larger picture. Getting up in the morning, going to a job, paying your bills, meeting all of the responsibilities of being an adult, a parent, an employee, a citizen, a good driver, etc, etc, etc all require a great deal of willpower and self-discipline. When you think about it, most people are probably exercising reasonably good willpower about 99% of the time. It is only in those few areas of our lives where we fall short that we experience problems.
A lot of the current literature espouses a basically “white knuckle” approach to exercising willpower: just get a grip, clench your teeth and hang on. If this works for you, so much the better, but I suspect there are easier and more productive ways to work around the issue.
Having a basic understanding of the dynamics in play is crucial to success. Let’s say you want to lose weight. The task is basically one of measuring a long-term goal, losing weight, against a short-term goal, eating that brownie. The conflict between the two opposing goals introduces us to the cast of characters. First, there is the modern-day you, thoughtful, reasonable, rational, adult. In the opposite corner there is also you, only at about age two: willful, stubborn, defiant and surly. The issue becomes how does the modern-day you exercise control over the two-year-old you?
It is notoriously difficult to negotiate with a two-year-old. The best you can hope for is to prepare yourself for the litany of complains that are about to rain down upon you and appreciate that you are going to be receiving a lesson in acceptance and forbearance.
The key to jousting with a two-year-old is to compassionately listen to and sympathize with their many grievances while at the same time making it clear you are not going to give in to any of them. There is no give and take (unless you count the two-year-old in you giving you a hard time and you taking it). They will not listen to reason. It may be helpful in this vein to keep in mind that a two-year-old only understands what he is losing. The concept of long-term gain is alien to him.
Despite this being strictly a one-way street, you will benefit from treating them as if this were an equal partnership. Adult you (AY): Time to get up andgo to the gym. Child you (CY): I don’t want to. AY: That’s OK, you don’thave to want to, all we have to do is go. Afterward, AY: There, that wasn’t so bad was it? We’ve achieved another step toward achieving our goal.
Try to avoid getting sucked into an argument or feeling angry about the lack of cooperation on the part of your two-year-old self. To do so would be playing right into their hands, creating remorse in yourself that you’ll be tempted to make up for somewhere down the road by giving in to their demands. Keep smiling, keep positive, maintain a courteous and respectful demeanor, but always remain firm. Stay focused on attaining your long-term goal, not winning battles with an intrapsychic part of yourself.
One danger of being too rigid or harsh with yourself is that when you do slip, you’re more inclined to feel defeated and just give up on the whole project. When you slip (and you will) be compassionate and take the long view: tomorrow is another day.
Recent research provides some of the more practical tips on maintaining your willpower. Try to break your long-term goals down into discernible, achievable blocks. If you are dieting, set a goal of a given number of days, which you know you will attain, rather than a given number of pounds, which you may or may not attain. If you are trying to cut down on alcohol consumption, allow yourself to drink two nights of the week, instead of seven. If you are trying to expand your exercise regimen, work out three times a week and take the other days off.
Try not to make crucial decisions when you are stressed, which includes being hungry or tired. Eat before you go grocery shopping and you may be able to resist the allure of the potato chip aisle (it’s wild isn’t it? An entire aisle of the stuff!) In fact, recent studies suggest that exercising willpower depletes the body’s store of glucose. You may want to take a glass of orange juice in advance of a situation where you know your willpower is going to be tested.
I think it is helpful to discuss the challenges you are confronting with your friends. Talking about it helps keep you positive, in that you gain the support and understanding of people you care about. The social reinforcement bolsters your mood and can help you ease past those moments when you feel your resolve weakening. Try to be aware of talking about it too frequently though or your friends will bolt the minute they see you coming!
I’m interested in your feedback. Please comment or “like.”