Last week I wrote about the dangers of willpower, so it was a little ironic when my mom came back from a trip to Powell’s with a book called The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, and I ate it up!
It did indeed reinforce my assertion that willpower is a limited resource and that it is crucial that we understand our motivation. She talks about three powers that affect our self-control, willpower, won’t power and want power. I believe that want power is the most powerful of all because it helps us to move from “I have to” to “I choose to because I want ___.”
McGonigal goes over some key concepts to understand in order to improve your self-control.
Pause and plan instinct - Most people are familiar with the fight or flight instinct that we have when we are in physical danger. McGonigal points out that we also have a “pause and plan” instinct that kicks in when we are faced with internal conflict. Instead of everything speeding up as it does with the fight or flight response, everything slows down. The problem is when we are under high levels of stress, our fight or flight takes over and we lose our strength to pause and plan. In our excessively over stimulating culture, we are under high degrees of stress. Add to that the intense sensitivity and reactivity of being highly excitable, and it’s no wonder our self-control reserves wear out.
Some things that can increase your willpower instinct include:
- Slow down your breathing.
- Take a 5 minute walk outdoors.
- Be sure to get sufficient sleep.
- Take time in your day to relax.
Self-control is like a muscle - If you use it too much, it gets tired, but regular exercise can make it stronger. I think part of the problem is though, we take on a self-control task that is so monumental, it’s like trying to lift 200 lb or bike 200 miles when we’ve never lifted or rode more than 20 before, then beating yourself up for not following through. Would you expect yourself to run a marathon without ever running before? Probably not, so why would you expect yourself to exert levels of self control well beyond what you’ve practiced before? Also, if you've exhausted your resources, even small levels of self control can be depleted. Think of the person who resists even a bite of pie all day and then binge eats the whole thing that night.
Some things that help give you more energy to build up your self control:
- Dig deep to find your big “want” power (it may not be what you think).
- Fuel your body with good food that supports your energy.
- Exercise self-control by picking one small thing to keep track of that you don’t usually pay attention to.
- When trying to make a big change, look for a small way to practice self-control that strengthens your willpower but doesn’t overwhelm it completely.
Self-control does not define self-worth - When we measure our moral worth on our ability to restrain ourselves, we are more likely to then turn around and reward ourselves with the very thing we are trying to resist. We may start to justify choices that aren’t in line with our goals based on one “virtuous” aspect (such as “it’s fat free,” or “it’s on sale.” We may also rationalize that it’s OK to do something today if we behave better tomorrow.
To keep yourself on the right track:
- Shift your focus from self-worth to your goals, values, mission and vision.
- Next time you want to indulge as a reward for “good behavior,” check in to see if it’s in line with your goals and values.
- Try for consistency within your day instead of extreme all or nothing behavior.
What we desire does not guarantee happiness - The dopamine in our brain convinces us that once we receive a reward, we will be happy. This can be used to motivate toward our goal, but can also derail us with more immediate “rewards” or “temptations.” Marketers use this tactic to sell things with the promise or reward. I believe that the more we deny ourselves, the more tempting the promise of reward can be.
To challenge the way dopamine works in your brain:
- Explore what gets your dopamine neurons firing. Is there a way to use your dopamine to move you toward your goal?
- Observe when your desire triggers stress and anxiety.
- Test the promise of reward by mindfully indulging in something your brain tells you will make you happy but never seems to satisfy. Does the reality match your brain’s promise? .
Feeling bad leads to giving in - Remember when I said that stress decreases our pause and plan instinct? It also increases our desires for some reward to relieve it. It may not be something that actually will relieve it, but your brain convinces itself that it will. This makes us more susceptible to temptation when we are under stress. So it makes sense that when your attempts at willpower place you under a lot of stress, you are more likely to give up on it.
To decrease stress and support your want power:
- Use proven stress relief strategies such as exercising, playing sports, meditating, practicing your spirituality, listening to music, reading, spending time with loved ones, getting a massage, going for a walk, doing yoga and/or spending time on a creative hobby.
- Practice forgiving yourself. Ask yourself, “What are you feeling and needing?’ Remind yourself you are only human and think of what you would say to a friend.
- Use optimistic pessimism by anticipating how and when you might be tempted and imagine a specific plan for following through on your goal.
If you can’t clearly see the future, it’s difficult to stay on the right path - This is the one that always gets me. Especially when it came to managing my chronic pain. I’d tried so many things that when I didn’t see immediate results, it was hard to stick to anything because I didn’t have the faith that it would help. Once I found something that made a difference though, I could stick to it so much better. There are many positive goals though that don’t have immediate rewards.
To keep on track with your long term wants:
- Get a really clear picture of what you want from you goal.
- Wait ten minutes before indulging in a temptation and remind yourself in that time the long term reward of resisting. If you choose to indulge at that point, do it mindfully.
- Create a future memory by writing a letter to your future self or just imagining yourself in the future.
Willpower is contagious - We are hardwired to connect with the people around us, so it is natural that the self-control demonstrated by our peers will affect our own level of self-control. We are also motivated by the anticipated approval or disapproval of others.
To use the power of social influence for good rather than evil:
- Spend a few minutes at the beginning of each day thinking about your goals to strengthen your immunity against the negative influence of others.
- When you need a little extra self-control, bring to mind someone you admire as a role model and ask yourself what they would do.
- Make your goal public to increase your accountability and gain support.
- Engage a group in moving toward your goals together.
Suppression may lead to obsession - When you try to suppress thoughts, emotions and/or cravings, it often backfires by making you more likely to think, feel or do the things you are trying to avoid. If someone says, “try not to think about yellow butterflies.” What do you immediately think about, yellow butterflies. This is one reason why in positive discipline, we are encouraged to focus on what we want them to do instead of what they don’t want them to do, because if we say “don’t do this,” what they hear is “do this.”
To avoid suppressing your thoughts or feelings:
- Allow yourself to feel what you feel, but question the thoughts that may be destructive to your goals.
- Accept your cravings. Acknowledge how you feel about it, remind yourself of your future goal. If you do choose to act on them, do it mindfully.
- If a strong urge takes hold, try practicing “surfing the urge.” Stay with the feelings of the urge and ride them like a wave rather than pushing them away.
If I could sum up what I gained from this book, I’d say that focusing on our want power is the key to lasting change. Willpower is a limited resource that can be built up by practicing in small doses, reducing stress and surrounding ourselves with people who practice good self-control. Be cautious of won’t power because suppression, deprivation and the stress of feeling bad about yourself can backfire and make you more prone to do the very things you want to avoid.