Building Your Want Power

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.

Power Toolkit

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power. ~ Lao Tzu

I've spoken a lot these past few weeks about how our intensity can be our greatest asset.  You might be thinking, "well that's great and all, but how do I use that intensity if I'm too overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings to even know where to begin?"

One of the strategies I use in my Ignite Your Power! program is to develop a Power toolkit of things that help you feel back in control.  This involves putting together physical items that help you refocus your energy along with reminders and possibly phone apps such as guided meditations and white noise.  On the table below, I include seven types of tools that you might consider, along with some examples of the types of things you might use for each excitability.



This is the category that is probably talked about most often. To effectively think about your next move, you must come from a place of calm - or at least not be revved up enough so that the reasoning part of your brain shuts down.

Ask yourself, What helps soothe my mind, imagination, feelings, senses and restless energy?

Possible items might include: Inspirational writing, quotes, guided imagery, grounding objects (rock, paperweight), acupressure points, tapping/EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique); sensory soothers such as: Touch (soft, squishy). See (movement, peaceful) Hear (music, guided meditation, white noise). Taste (mints, tea). Smell (candles, oils); as well as physical soothers such as yoga, stretches, walks and calming movement.



Sometimes when our mind is going a mile a minute without stopping, we need to distract ourselves to disengage from our thoughts. The purpose of distracting yourself is to break yourself of the pattern and move on. Use these tools sparingly as you don't want to get stuck on the chosen distraction. Consider setting a timer or reminder of when to end the distraction and move on to something else.

Ask yourself, What helps distract my mind, imagination, feelings, senses and restless energy?

Possible items might include: puzzles, books, crossword puzzles, sudoku, artwork, crafts, crochet, sewing, positive websites, movies, music, movement, walking, dancing and exercise.



Once we are calm and out of self defeating thought loops, we can get the space to observe our situation.

Ask yourself: What helps me make objective observations? How do I step back from my emotions or thoughts to see clearly?

Possible items might include: Mindfulness tools, timer, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation and walking meditation.



Soothing and distracting yourself may temporarily disconnect you with your feelings, but it is important not to ignore them.  When you can make clear objective observations, you can start to connect with your underlying feelings and needs about the situation.

Ask yourself: How do I connect with my thoughts, ideas, feelings, senses and/or energy?

Possible items might include: Journal, drawing, art supplies, list of feelings & needs, yoga and breathing exercises.



If you are prone to a repetitive pattern of feelings or thoughts, it can be useful to have tools that counter-balance those feelings or thoughts.  For example, if you are constantly self-critical, it could be helpful to write down affirmations to read to yourself.

Ask yourself: What helps counter-balance overactive mind, imagination, emotions, senses and energy issues?

Possible items might include: Mindless activities (use sparingly as with distracting items), grounding activities, affirmations, inspirational messages, funny or cheering writings or videos, pleasant sensations and calming or energizing activities.



While it is important to find soothing activities, it is equally important to find activities that boost your energy and inspiration.

Ask yourself: What helps activate my mind, creativity, positive feelings, senses and energy?

Possible items might include: Inspirational readings, ideas and messages, dream boards, things to touch, see, hear (music), taste (tea), smell (oils), energizing movement and dancing.


Reach out

Finally, it is helpful to remember that you are not doing this alone.  Make a list of people who you can count on to help.

Ask yourself: Who can I process my thoughts, creative ideas, emotions, sensory experiences and/or energy needs with?

Possible people might include: Friends, family, mentors, teachers, counselors and coaches.

Now it's your turn, what tools do you use to reconnect with your own power?

If you'd like to explore this further, there's still time to join us in my Ignite Your Power! program,

Harnessing Your Power!

Last week I talked about how I've toned myself down and tuned myself out over the years.  This can be a tempting thing to do when you seem to react more intensely to things than most people around you.

If you are highly excitable though, your greatest excesses may in fact be your greatest assets!

To me, the key is not to tone yourself down for others, but to approach the world more consciously so that you can be in control of your own life choices.

When well harnessed, excitability can be a wonderful thing.  It enables us to pick up on things others might not and experience things in a passionate way.  According to Dabrowski, who coined the term “overexcitability,” or “hyperstimulability,” It is a sign of high developmental potential. This is because intensity can help us to become more self-aware. The problem comes when our self-criticism becomes a cycle and we don’t use it to move forward.

If you are Intellectually excitable - Your mind goes a mile a minute and you make connections others might not.  You are a great problem solver and can come up with new ways of thinking.  If left unchecked though, your active mind can keep you from concentrating or sleeping.  You might be prone to overanalyzing and drawing hasty conclusions.  It might be tempting to suppress your overactive mind through mindless activities such as watching TV, internet or substance use.  Finding ways to bring more mindfulness into your life and practicing observing without judgment can help channel your mental energy in a positive direction.

If you are Imaginatively excitable - You have an intense imagination.  You are a highly creative visionary with an active fantasy life.  You are capable of great innovation and thinking outside the box.  If you don’t watch yourself though, you might lose touch with reality or have your head in the clouds.  You also might be prone to invent and fret about problems that may never happen.  If you've stifled you imaginative energy, you might feel stuck or stagnant. With solid grounding, your inspiration can soar.

If you have Psychomotor excitability - People might describe you as animated and full of life.  You can be inspiring, uplifting and charismatic and revitalize people and situations.  When this energy gets out of control, you might be prone to inconsistent energy and/or perpetual overdrive.  You might appear as wired, hyperactive or harried.  At some point, you might burn out and feel listless and/or restlessly inactive. Make sure you are taking time to hit the pause button every now and then so you don’t burn out.

If you are Sensualy excitable - You have an increased awareness of all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.  You have a strong appreciation for aesthetics and tend to be highly perceptive and observant.  Because you are more physically sensitive than most, little things can irritate you and you might feel easily over stimulated.  You might also be easily distractible by everything around you that others don’t notice.  It is possible that you have learned to tune these things out, but this can lead to more problems if you ignore your body’s signals.  Check in with yourself regularly to mindfully observe your body.

If you are Emotionally excitable - You feel things deeply and may have a tender heart.  You are also likely to be compassionate and concerned for others.  With extreme positive emotions also comes extreme negative emotions and others might perceive you as overly dramatic.  Your strong empathy might drive you to put other’s needs before your own.  It is possible you might try to avoid this by distancing yourself from your emotions and the people around you. Acknowledge your depth of emotion and celebrate it.  Just take time to process things before you react out of emotion alone.

Now, I want you to pick one thing about yourself related to intensity or excitability that you have been self-critical of.  Now look at that trait, and describe how it looks when it’s out of control, how it looks when you try to suppress it, and how it looks when it is well harnessed.

Some examples:

Trait Suppressed Uncontrolled Harnessed
Intellectual All plans, no progress Racing thoughts Analytical problem solver
Imaginational Stifled imagination Out of touch with reality Vivid imagination
Psychomotor Listless Wired Animated/Full of life
Sensual Tuned out Raw & Overstimulated Enriched by senses
Emotional Detached Overly emotional Deeply feeling/concerned

Understanding how your powers look when they are well harnessed is the first step to using them more efficiently.

If you'd like to explore it further, you can check out my Ignite Your Power! program!