Willpower. It’s not something that is tangible but it’s essential. Whilst some of us can seem to summon it relatively effortlessly, for most of us mere mortals it can often be as elusive as it is necessary for us to attain our goals. We talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk our feet easily get weary. We make excuses. We bargain with our future selves. We procrastinate. And ultimately we settle for instant gratification and give up on our long term goals. The thing is willpower isn’t something that get’s handed out to some and not to others. It is a skill you can develop through understanding and practice. Willpower is ultimately an exercise in self control.
Earlier this year The TED Blog did a Q & A with Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal about how willpower is often misunderstood, and what we each can do to improve it. I found her answers to be both insightful and informative. I have decided to share some excerpts of that Q & A below.
Why is willpower such a struggle?
‘Willpower is the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other.
Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.
The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain — that there are competing systems that think about the world differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival. But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.
So on those things you feel like you should be doing — the going to the gym or the quitting smoking — is there a way to build your willpower towards those things?
If there’s a behaviour that they put off or don’t do because of anxiety or self-doubt or because it’s boring or uncomfortable — bribe yourself. If you hate exercise but truly, truly want the consequences of exercising, you should give yourself permission to do whatever you don’t want to let yourself do — like read trashy gossip magazines, or download a whole series of a TV show that you can plop on in front of you on the treadmill. As long as it doesn’t conflict with your goal, then you should go ahead and pair the thing you don’t want to do with a reward that you might otherwise not give yourself permission for. That can be very effective for beginning to prioritize and make time for things.
Also, give yourself permission to do small steps rather than think that there’s an ideal you need to meet. I wrote a review paper about two years ago showing that you can get pretty much the same health benefits from doing 5 to 15 minutes of exercise a day as from an hour. There are a lot of things like that, where we think, “I won’t get my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.” Well, you could create a novel in a paragraph a day. So I encourage people to think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe it’s sufficient.
To conclude she had this to say
Willpower is about being able to hold opposites. So I can feel the emotion, I can feel the craving, and at the very same time, I just make my awareness big enough to hold my commitment to make a different choice. Your ability to hold those opposites is what gives people willpower over time.
You can read the full interview here