According to a 2010 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, the lack of willpower is the number-one obstacle people face in achieving their goals.
Many feel guilty about their lack of self-control, like they’re letting themselves and others down, and that their lives are, in large part, not under their control. They report feeling like their actions are dictated by emotions, impulses, and cravings and that exerting self-discipline ultimately just leads to exhaustion.
And what about those with higher levels of willpower?
Well, they do better in school, earn more money, make better leaders, and are happier, healthier, and less stressed. They have better social and romantic relationships (they can keep their mouths shut), and they even live longer.
The bottom line is no matter the circumstances, more willpower trumps less.
Regardless of where we generally fall in the spectrum, we all have willpower challenges to face. Some are biological in nature—the desire to eat greasy, sugary foods that our brains recognize as vital to our survival—and others are more uniquely ours.
What we find tempting someone else might find repulsive. Their addictions might be as appealing to us as airline food.
Whatever the details, the machinations are the same. Your excuse for skipping the gym…again…is remarkably similar to the foodie’s justification for bingeing…for the third day in a row. How you talk yourself into putting off that important work just one more day is how someone else eases the guilt of giving in to his cravings for a cigarette.
The science is clear: the internal struggle of self-discipline is just part of being human.
Why is it such a heavy burden for some people though? Why do they give up so easily on goals, and why do they blissfully indulge in so many self-sabotaging behaviors? And what can be done about it? How can they get themselves and their lives under control?
Well, these are all good questions, and while I definitely don’t have all the answers, I’m going to share the research and insights that have helped me understand the nature of the beast and how to tame it.
As you’ll see, the self-awareness that comes with gaining a deeper understanding of how we tick is incredibly empowering. By better understanding what makes us likely to lose control, we can skillfully manage our “willpower reserves” and avoid the pitfalls that drain them.
So let’s start our little journey with a simple concept: a clear definition of what willpower really is.
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Table of Contents
What do we mean when we say someone has or lacks willpower?
We’re usually referring to their ability or inability to say no. They’re supposed to study for the exam but instead accept the invitation to the movies. They’re trying to lose 10 pounds but just couldn’t say no to that apple pie. They have trouble saying “I won’t.”
There are two other aspects to willpower, though: “I will” and “I want.”
“I will” power is the other side of the “I won’t” coin. It’s the ability to do something when you don’t want to, like grinding out the workout when you’re tired, paying the overdue bill, or burning the midnight oil on that work project.
“I want” is the ability to remember the why when temptation strikes—the long-term goal and thing you really want more than the fast food or credit card purchase.
Become the master of your won’ts, wills, and wants, and you become the master of your destiny.
Procrastination can be licked. Your worst habits can be dismantled and replaced. Whiffs of temptation lose their power over you.
Don’t expect these abilities to come easily, though. “Reprogramming” yourself to favor the harder choices is going to be uncomfortable. You might find it overwhelming at first. You’re going to be drawn back to what’s familiar.
Stay the course, however, and the pieces will start falling into place. You’ll find it easier and easier to say no to the distractions and yes to the things you need to do without getting frazzled.
So, now that we’ve established what willpower consists of and what the stakes are, let’s move on to the physiology of desire and why it can sometimes make it so hard to resist being “bad.”
A real willpower challenge isn’t a fleeting, “wouldn’t that be nice” thought that disappears as quickly as it came. It’s more like an all-consuming battle raging inside of you between good and evil, virtue and sin, and yin and yang, and you feel it physically.
What’s going on?
Well, physiologically speaking, you’re experiencing your brain when it’s fixated on a promise of reward.
Once you catch sight of that cheeseburger, a chemical called dopamine gushes through your brain. All of a sudden, all that matters in life in that greasy, delicious pile of meat, cheese, and bun. The dopamine tells your brain that you must consume that sandwich now, no matter the cost, or suffer the ghastly consequences.
To make matters even worse, your brain is now anticipating the imminent spike in insulin and energy, so it begins to lower your blood sugar levels. This, in turn, makes you crave the burger even more. And next thing you know, you’re in line, anxiously waiting your turn to order one.
You see, once you become aware of an opportunity to score a reward, your brain squirts out dopamine to tell us that this indeed is the droid we’re looking for. It plays up the sweet song of immediate gratification and plays down any chatter about long-term consequences.
The chemical isn’t engineered to make us feel happy and content, though—its role is to stimulate us to action. It does this by arousing us, sharpening our focus, and revving up our drive us to do something to get our hands on the prize. That’s its carrot that it dangles for us.
It has a stick too: when dopamine is released, it also triggers the release of stress hormones that make us feel anxious. This is why the more we think about the reward we want, the more important it becomes to us. The more we think we have to get it now.
We don’t realize, however, that the stress we feel isn’t caused by not having the apple pie, pair of shoes, or Candy Crush trophy. It’s caused by the desire itself. It’s dopamine’s emotional tool for making sure we obey its commands.
Your brain doesn’t give a damn about the bigger picture. It cares nothing about whether you’re going to be happy 30 pounds heavier or a thousand dollars poorer. Its job is to identify promises of pleasure and raise red flags, even if pursuing them will entail risky, chaotic behavior and cause more problems than they’re worth.
Ironically, the ultimate rewards we’re looking for can elude us every time, but the slimmest possibility of payoff and the anxiety of giving up the quest can keep us hooked, even to the point of obsession.
And that’s why we can find ourselves, just a few days after a guilt-inducing, catastrophic failure of willpower, anxiously chasing the dragon again: scarfing down more artery clogging fare, racking up more credit card debt, and cracking out on more Facebook gaming.
Anything we think will bring pleasure kicks this reward-seeking system into gear: the smell of the cheeseburger, the Black Friday sale, the wink from the girl, or the advertisement for the testosterone booster.
Once dopamine has your brain in its grasp, obtaining the desirable object or doing the action that triggered it can become a “do-or-die” proposition.
It’s no surprise, then, that eating, smelling, or even just seeing calorie- and sugar-rich foods makes us want to eat everything in sight. There was a time when an insatiable appetite was vital for survival. After fasting for several days, you’ve finally killed an animal, and you’d better scarf down a huge number of calories to gain the body fat needed to stay alive until the next feast.
That was then, however. These days, that instinct is more a liability than a life insurance policy, but it’s still there, ready to coax us into getting fatter and fatter.
The dopamine problems don’t end here, either.
Research shows that the dopamine release triggered by one promise of reward makes us more likely to pursue others. Look at pictures of naked women and you’re more likely to make risky financial decisions. Dream about striking it rich, and food can become really appetizing.
This is especially problematic in today’s modern world, which in many ways is literally engineered to keep us always wanting more.
Food companies know how much salt, sugar, and fat to include in recipes to hook us, and they know that a never-ending variety of new flavors and options prevents us from becoming “desensitized” to their brands of reward.
Video game makers carefully craft experiences that can elevate dopamine to amphetamine-like levels, which explains a lot of the obsessive-compulsive behavior seen in gaming.
Online shopping, constant sexual stimulation in all forms of media, Facebook, and even the aromas pumped into stores, hotels, restaurants, fast food joints, and ice cream parlors all scream “Here’s a reward!” to your brain, which wallows in all the dopamine like a pig in—well, you know—and we feel like we have to scratch all of these itches, sooner rather than later.
When we consider how overtargeted and overstimulated our dopamine neurons really are, it’s no surprise that the average person is an overweight procrastinator hooked on ice cream, video games, television shows, and social media and that it takes a rather dramatic shift in behavior to escape from these traps.
If we’re to succeed in this new world, we must learn to distinguish between the false, distracting, and addicting “rewards” we’re enticed with every day, everywhere we go, and the real rewards that give us true fulfillment and that bring meaning to our lives.
Modern life bombards us with willpower challenges that require us to call on our self-control mechanisms to successfully avoid distractions and do the things we need to do and not do what we shouldn’t.
The problem with this is research shows that we can, at some point, “run out” of self-control juice, leaving us susceptible to temptation.
Scientists have observed that, regardless of the types of tasks performed, people’s self-control is at its highest in the morning and that it steadily declines as the day wears on. Resisting sweets, fighting emotional impulses, keeping distractions at bay, compelling yourself to do difficult tasks, or even making trivial purchase decisions all seem to pull from the same willpower reserve.
These findings have given rise to the “willpower as a muscle” metaphor: it only has so much strength and every time you “flex” it, it becomes a little bit weaker. The positive side of the metaphor, however, is that you can train your “willpower muscle” like a physical one and make it stronger and more resistant to fatigue.
Research backs this up, too.
We can increase our overall willpower by performing regular, small acts of self-control like eating less sweets, tracking spending, correcting our posture, refraining from swearing, squeezing a handgrip every day, and using our non-dominant hand for various tasks.
What we’re really training when we do these “trivial” things is what psychologists call the “pause-and-plan response,” which involves pausing before we act, noticing what we’re about to do, and choosing differently instead.
And we can use this research to build our own “willpower workouts” that train our self-control.
For example, you can build your “I won’t” power by refraining from slouching when you sit, committing to not eating a junk food indulgence every day, or not swearing. You can build your “I will” power by committing to some new daily habit like doing five minutes of breathing exercises, going for a walk outside, doing twenty pushups after waking up, tracking something in your life that you don’t usually pay attention to like daily calorie intake or expenditures, the amount of coffee drunk, or how much time spent surfing the Internet, or even finding something that needs cleaning in your house and cleaning it.
You might be surprised how far these “little” self-control exercises can go in increasing your ability to make bigger changes in our lives like adopting a new, healthier lifestyle.
Another highly effective way to train your willpower is to use a strategy called “precommitment,” which entails taking action now to strengthen your position and commitment to a behavior and ward off any underhanded attempts at sabotage from Future You. For many people, the best way to beat temptation is to simply avoid facing it in the first place.
For example, if you have trouble with procrastinating on the Internet instead of working, you can download a program called Freedom that turns off your Internet for a set period of time. Anti-Social blocks social networks and email.
If sticking to a diet is your struggle, you could precommit by throwing out every bit of tempting junk food in the house and not buying it again, bringing a healthy lunch to work every day that you’ve prepared, or joining a “Diet Bet.” If you want to ensure you do your workouts, you could pay for an annual membership at your gym instead of going month-to-month.
Another good tool for precommitment is the website Stickk, which was created by Yale economist Ian Aryes, and which allows you to set a goal and time frame, put money on the line, decide what happens with the money if you fail (goes to charity, for example, or even an organization you don’t like, which can be a stronger incentive), designate a “referee” that will monitor your progress and confirm the truthfulness of your reports, and invite supporters to cheer you on.
In short, anything you can do to show that you mean business and to make it difficult and uncomfortable to change your mind and give up is going to help you keep your impulses and feelings at bay and thus keep you on course.
Human nature is full of paradoxes and the subject of self-control is no exception.
We’re drawn to both delayed and immediate gratification in the forms of long-term goals and temporary jolts of pleasure. We’re inherently susceptible to temptation but have the powers to resist. We’re constantly juggling feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness intermingled with calm, hopefulness, and excitement.
While I don’t think we can fundamentally change ourselves through the strengthening of our willpower, we can certainly improve our abilities to meet the demands of daily living with more mindfulness, effectiveness, and confidence.