The Psychology of Willpower: Part 2

As a continuation from Part 1 on our series on willpower, maybe you long ago resolved not to make New Year’s resolutions because you know that the odds are against you succeeding. But what if you had insider information about how willpower does and doesn’t work? Research studies support the idea that while willpower isn’t an unlimited resource, there are strategies that can be utilized to optimize it.35122236_m

What doesn’t work:

Reading about what doesn’t work in a situation you’re familiar with offers validation of your frustration and struggles. But knowing what doesn’t work is also a time saver. Instead of spending time and energy on tactics that have never provided positive results, move on, my friend. Move on.

No Fear, No Shame: 

Shame doesn’t work: Research studies that measured why people were successful at small, quickly achievable goals, people who were given self-control instructions that included shaming and fear-related information (such as, “This fast food cheeseburger will clog your arteries and contains 850 calories.”) were successful only 10 percent of the time. In comparison, people who were given absolutely no self-control instructions had twice the chance to succeed.

In “Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell presented multiple research studies that showed that focusing on the negative results of smoking (fear) and attempts to make smoking seem “not cool” (shaming) had virtually no impact on the rates at which people started smoking, the age at which they started smoking, or the rate at which people attempted to quit smoking or were successful at quitting.

Too fast and too big to succeed

As mentioned in Part 1, there’s strong evidence that willpower is a limited resource and, like a muscle, needs recovery time after it’s fatigued. You wouldn’t walk into a gym after a long period of inactivity with the intention of bench-pressing 250 lbs. and you shouldn’t expect your willpower to sustain you through a big goal with a short deadline.

On its own, willpower can only be relied on for short bursts. A goal of losing 30 pounds in 30 days is too big of a chunk for human willpower to take on. With only 30 days to lose a lot of weight, it’s necessary to change multiple behaviors and habits. A short deadline doesn’t give the brain enough time to recover from hanging tough in the face of temptation.

So what does work? For the Jedi in training, the answers are found within what doesn’t work. For the rest of us, the answers are found in Kelly McGonigal’s “The Willpower Instinct” and include the advice to make it small, make it social, make it mindful.

What’s Proven to Work: 741299_m

Across the board, researchers have found that adequate sleep and good nutrition positively affect willpower and the time the willpower section of the brain needs to recover. Good organization and planning skills are important, too. Think of these things as the WD40 of willpower. Maybe a key still works in your sticky lock, but when you spray it with a little WD40 you realize how much extra effort was required before the key slid effortlessly in and out of the lock.

Take the time to add approximately eight hours of sleep to your daily schedule along with time to plan and prepare nutritious meals. Likewise, plan how you’ll work your efforts to reach your goal into your day and how you’ll handle setbacks. The key to success will slide a lot more easily in and out of the lock.

Make it small

Smokers who wait only 10 minutes longer than usual to light their first cigarette of the day have a much higher success rate at eventually quitting and remaining smoke-free than smokers who try to quit cold turkey, use prescription non-smoking aids or nicotine replacement products. The 10-minute-delay smokers only require their willpower to work for 10 minutes, once a day at first. Their brains have 23 hours and 50 minutes of recovery time and builds strength and endurance over the course of several days or weeks. The 10-minute-delay smokers very easily transition to 11-minute-delay, 15-minute-delay, 30-minute-delay smokers. The majority of them quit entirely within 12 to 18 months.

Could achieving a goal possibly be as easy as delaying gratification? Not usually on its own. The willpower building blocks impact success, as do McGonigal’s other two bullet points: make it social, make it mindful. But even two minutes of anything is enough to build your willpower muscle so that it can support continued efforts.

Make it social

Making your change social activates pleasure centers in your brain, which, in turn, cause a reaction that increases the activity in your brain’s willpower sections. Even the support provided by online groups has been shown to increase positive brain activity. Telling trusted friends about your goals, reporting positive results and receiving positive feedback are all ways to strengthen your willpower muscle.

Make it mindful

The day will come when all your efforts will meet a temptation that tests the strength of your willpower muscle. While it would be easy to give in, McGonigal suggests something she calls “surfing the urge” to get through the temptation.

The first step is to acknowledge the temptation (“I really want a piece of cake.”). Then notice your thoughts (“Just one piece of cake won’t hurt anything.”). Don’t argue with your thoughts, don’t get angry, just notice them. Next, check in with your body. Where do you feel tension? Where do you feel discomfort? The next part of riding the urge is to make a mindful choice, which could include resisting the temptation.

In studies of people who utilize this technique, more than 35 percent were able to ignore the temptation completely and another 35 percent were able to satisfactorily manage their reaction to the temptation in a way that made them feel very positive about the outcome. The surf the urge technique also strengthens the willpower muscle which means that the next wave of temptation will be mastered even more successfully.

Achieving a goal is satisfying in many ways. With the first bit of advice being make it small, you’ve got nothing to lose from getting started on your own goal today.