In the American Psychological Association’s annual survey on stress, people cited lack of willpower as the No. 1 barrier to following through with changes that would improve their lives.
What they’re really saying is that they don’t have the self-control to make those changes, because if they did, they’d know that willpower is something over which they have total control.
Willpower is defined as the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. It’s the self-control to manage our thoughts, emotions and behavior in ways that set us up for success. It’s like mental toughness — it boils down to who’s calling the shots. If you want something bad enough, you’ll find the willpower to make things happen.
It isn’t easy because our happiness-infused culture confuses what feels good with what is good for us. Good experiences are not always pleasant, and pleasant experiences are not always good. We’ve confused the good life with feeling good. There are lots of books and seminars that promise to show you how to eliminate your frustrations and show you ways to avoid negative experiences.
A strong mind doesn’t require layers of enlightenment. Instead, think of it as a kick in the butt where you get over yourself and deal with all aspects of life. If you adopt an avoidance-or-denial approach to everything that is crappy and disagreeable, there are lots of pharmaceutical companies and drug dealers willing to sell you whatever keeps you in lala land.
The alternative is to take an honest look at yourself and spend the time to uncover what is important to you. Once you do, you’ll have an inkling of where you want to go in life. Because here’s the thing: To activate your willpower, you must be able to remind yourself why it’s important for you to do something. Meaningless tasks will not activate your willpower. When you find a way to keep the juices flowing, it’s a potent reminder that you are working on something important and are committed to your goal.
There’s a good chance that you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are good that you failed because it takes more than a flimsy commitment to lose fifty pounds or run five miles before breakfast. Not there’s anything wrong with either of those goals, but unless your heart is truly into it, and it is important to you, it’s just another task in an already packed day.
Willpower by itself will fail every time if our decision is based on logic that comes from our thinking brain. The reason is that our emotional brain always runs the show and will always win an argument with the thinking brain.
Self-control and self-discipline must work with our emotions, not against them, to create the willpower to push past obstacles and setbacks. This rubs up against the traditional way in which people have looked at willpower because the classical approach has encouraged us to feel bad about the things that make us feel good.
Take dieting as an example — we’re supposed to feel bad about wanting a cookie even though we desire it. This logic links willpower to self-denial, and that association is deeply embedded in our psyche. Religion is another example where self-denial appeals to our logical, thinking brain but can slap our emotions in the face. Since we already know we won’t get anywhere without the cooperation of the emotional brain, a better approach would be to start with the willingness of the heart (emotional) to follow up with behavior (thinking) that will ensure success.
There are lots of books and articles on willpower, but beware because most are based on outdated and inaccurate research. A popular misconception is that willpower is a limited resource. Until recently, studies indicated that willpower was great for sprints, but not for the long run.
The advantage of scientific studies is that, if we wait long enough, there’s a good chance another study will come out that debunks that last one! Sure enough, more recent studies have found that our self-control is improved through successive challenges where exerted effort is its own reward and leads to feelings of achievement.
Another study found that willpower is a limited resource only if we believe it is. It’s all in our mind and is another example of how our beliefs drive our behavior. A strong mind is the real power behind willpower.
How to make it work for you: Connect to your why. If you’re frustrated because you don’t have the self-control to change your behavior, you’ll start to feel bad about yourself. If we don’t like who we are and hate the way we can’t stick with a behavior, before too long we find ourselves on the treadmill of shame. Shame is a type of self-hate and creates an unhealthy and unbearable tension within ourselves.
Unless the behavior makes us feel good, we’ll run out of willpower. We’ll have no motivation to continue the behavior even though we know it’s good for us. Work with your emotions, not against them. Listen to what they’re telling you because when you do, you’ll no longer experience shame, you’ll feel self-love.
How to make it work for you: Engage in activities that you actually enjoy. “Want to” goals are far more likely to be achieved that “have to” goals. If you want to change a behavior or habit, it will require less effort on your part. Link the “want to” goal with an activity you’ll look forward to, not dread.
Some of us “have to” lose weight or quit smoking so the search for an activity will be harder. Even if you don’t like to run, there are other ways to lose weight. If your battle is to fight an addiction, connect with a group of people with whom you can develop deep bonds of support and encouragement.
How to make it work for you: Remove yourself from temptations. Studies have shown that people who experienced fewer temptations are more successful when it comes to changing their behavior. Even if you didn’t win the genetic lottery and are tempted by hunger, gambling or drinking, there are ways you can distance yourself.
Hang around the right people. This simple answer is backed up by common sense and science because the people we hang around influence our behavior. Studies have shown that a variety of behaviors, including smoking, happiness, cooperation and response to adversity, are influenced by people with whom we are connected on a deep level.
How to make it work for you: The groups we associate with often determine the type of person we become. To be more resilient and move forward with purpose in life, we’ll find it easier if we embed themselves in social groups who think and behave the same way.
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LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.