I Will, I Won’t, I Want
Willpower is actually three powers – I will, I won’t and I want – that help us to be a better version of ourselves.
- Track your willpower choices. For at least one day, try to notice every decision you make related to your willpower challenge.
- Five-minute brain-training meditation. Focus on your breath using the words “inhale” and “exhale” in your mind. When your mind wanders, notice, and bring it back to the breath.
Your Body Was Born to Resist Cake
Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.
Stress and self-control. Notice when stress strikes throughout the day or week, and watch what happens to your self-control. Do you experience cravings? Lose your temper? Put off things you know you should do?
- Breathe your way to self-control. Slow down your breathing to four to six breaths per minute to shift into the physiological state of self-control.
- The five-minute green willpower boost. Get active outdoors – even just a walk around the block – to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost motivation.
- Zzzzzzzzzz. Undo the effects of sleep deprivation with a nap or one good night’s sleep.
- Relax to restore your willpower reserve. Lie down, breathe deeply, and let the physiological relaxation response help you recover from the demands of self-control and daily stress.
Why Self-Control Is Like a Muscle
Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger.
The highs and lows of willpower. Keep track of your self-control strength this week, with special interest in when you have the most willpower, and when you are most likely to give in or give up.
Is your exhaustion real? The next time you find yourself “too tired” to exert self-control, examine whether you can go beyond that first feeling of fatigue to take one more step.
- The willpower diet. Make sure that your body is well fuelled with food that gives you lasting energy.
- A willpower workout. Exercise your self-control muscle by picking one thing to do (I will power) or not do (I won’t power) this week, or keeping track of something you aren’t used to paying close attention to.
- Find your “want” power. When you find your biggest want power – the motivation that gives you strength when you feel weak – bring it to mind whenever you find yourself most tempted to give in or give up.
Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad
When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.
Virtue and vice. Do you tell yourself you’ve been “good” when you succeed at a willpower challenge, then give yourself permission to do something “bad”?
Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow? Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behaviour tomorrow – and if so, do you follow through?
Halo effects. Do you justify a vice because of one virtuous aspect (e.g., discount savings, fat-free, protects the environment)?
Who do you think you are? When you think about your willpower challenge, which part of you feels like the “real” you – the part of you who wants to pursue the goal, or the part of you who needs to be controlled?
- To revoke your license, remember the why. The next time you find yourself using past good behaviour to justify indulging, pause and think about why you were “good,” not whether you deserve a reward.
- A tomorrow just like today. For your willpower challenge, aim to reduce the variability of your behaviour day to day.
Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness
Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.
What gets your dopamine neurons firing? What unleashes that promise of reward that compels you to seek satisfaction?
Neuromarketing and environmental triggers. Look at the ways retailers and advertisers try to trigger the promise of reward.
The stress of desire. Notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety.
- Dopaminize your “I will” power challenge. If there’s something you’ve been putting off, motivate yourself by linking it with something that gets your dopamine neurons firing.
- Test the promise of reward. Mindfully indulge in something your brain tells you will make you happy but that never seems to satisfy (e.g., snack food, shopping, television and online time-wasters). Does reality match the brain’s promises?
How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In
Feeling bad leads to giving in, and avoiding guilt makes you stronger.
The promise of relief. What do you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed?
What’s terrifying you? Pay attention to the stress of what you hear or see in the media, online or from other sources.
When setbacks happen. Do you respond to a willpower failure with guilt and self-criticism?
Resolving to feel good. Do you use fantasies of your future self to fix your feelings now, more than you take concrete steps to fix your behaviour?
- Stress-relief strategies that work. The next time you’re stressed, try one of the stress-relief strategies that really work, such as exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, or spending time on a creative hobby.
- Forgiveness when you fail. Take a more compassionate perspective on your setbacks to avoid the guilt that leads to giving in again.
- Optimistic pessimism for successful resolutions. Predict how and when you might be tempted to break your vow, and imagine a specific plan of action for not giving in.
The Economics of Instant Gratification
Our inability to clearly see the future clearly leads us into temptation and procrastination.
How are you discounting future rewards? For your willpower challenge, ask yourself what future rewards you put on sale each time you give in to temptation or procrastination.
Are you waiting for future you? Is there an important change or task you’re putting off, hoping that a future you with more willpower will appear?
Are you too farsighted for your own good? Do you find it more difficult to indulge than to resist temptation?
- Wait ten minutes. Institute a mandatory ten-minute wait for any temptation. Before the time is up, bring to mind the competing long-term reward of resisting temptation.
- Lower your discount rate. When you are tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for resisting temptation.
- Precommit your future self. Create a new default, make it more difficult to reverse your preferences, or motivate your future self with reward or threat.
- Meet your future self. Create a future memory, write a letter to your future self, or just imagine yourself in the future.
Why Willpower Is Contagious
Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious
Your social network. Do other people in your social circle share your willpower challenge?
Who are you mirroring? Keep your eyes open for any evidence that you are mirroring other people’s behaviour.
Who are you most likely to catch something from? Who are your “close others”? Are there any behaviours that you’ve picked up from them, or that they have caught from you?
But everyone else is doing it! Do you use social proof to convince yourself that your willpower challenge is not so important?
- Strengthen your immune system. To avoid catching other people’s willpower failures, spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your goals.
- Catch self-control. When you need a little extra willpower, bring a role model to mind. Ask yourself “What would this willpower wonder do?”
- The power of pride. Go public with your willpower challenges, and imagine how proud you will feel when you succeed at them.
- Make it a group project. Can you enlist others in a willpower challenge?
The Limits of “I Won’t” Power
Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel or do the thing you most want to avoid.
Investigate ironic rebound. Is there something you try to avoid thinking about? Does suppression work, or does trying to push something out of your mind make it come back stronger?
What’s on your Most-Wanted list? In your experience, is it true that outlawing something increases desire for it?
- Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think. When an upsetting thought comes to mind, notice it and how it feels in your body. Then turn your attention to your breathing, and imagine the thought dissolving or passing by.
- Accept those cravings – just don’t act on them. When a craving hits, notice it and don’t try to immediately distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white-bear rebound effect, and remember your goal to resist.
- Surf the urge. When an urge takes hold, stay with the physical sensations and ride them like a wave, neither pushing them away nor acting on them.