muscle memory and training

How to flex your willpower

It’s been a long day. Kicking off your shoes, you yawn and wander absentmindedly into the kitchen. Pinned to the fridge door is the kickstart healthy diet you started last week, the meal plans highlighted in optimistically bright Texta. Today’s dinner: salmon and vegetables. Your stomach growls, missing its habitual afternoon sugar fix. Cool air brushes your cheeks as you open the door to find a half-eaten chocolate bar at eye level, remnants of the visit from your niece. Just have a glass of water and some carrot sticks, a reasonable voice advises. Your mind strays to the difficult conversation with a colleague that afternoon, remembering how your knees went wobbly at her tone of disapproval. As if in a trance, your hand reaches to grip the bar. Where has all my willpower gone?, you wonder, as within a matter of seconds the chocolate becomes a smudge on your lips, the health plan shrivelling up like a chip packet in the fire.

Willpower. The word itself conjures images of superhuman figures standing unmoved and resolute despite wild winds and battering seas: aerobic instructors with six-packs and permanent smiles, straight-backed meditators sitting statuesque for hours, 5am joggers on freezing winter mornings. A lack thereof is to be pitied: those who crumple at the faintest sniff of baking scones or cave at the mere suggestion of the third glass of wine.

Scientists have said that, together with intelligence, self-control is one of the best predictors of a successful and satisfying life.

You either have it or you don’t, some people say. True or not, self-control is for most a battlefield of conflicting desires littered with both triumphs and failures; a seeming testing ground of our very characters. It is perfect fodder for media that feed on images of “good” and “bad”. Celebrated are the pin-ups of self-control, such as the singer Amanda Palmer, who resisted the temptation to move a muscle during long hours as a living statue. Derided are the willpower weak, epitomised by yo-yo dieters such as Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities.

What is willpower?

Defined as the ability to control attention, emotions and desires, willpower influences most parts of our life — certainly our physical health, financial security, relationships and professional success. Whether it’s food, shopping, fitness, communication with a partner, gambling, internet addiction or anything, in fact, that we want to either start or stop, everything, it seems, requires some degree of it. Scientists have said that, together with intelligence, self-control is one of the best predictors of a successful and satisfying life. According to the American Psychologist Association, Americans name lack of willpower as the number one reason they struggle to fulfil their goals.

But how much do we really know about this all-important human function? Why is it that some have the ability to cling as strongly as an urchin on a rock to their goals, gritting their teeth with arduous concentration and monk-like sobriety, while others appear at the mercy of a fate dictated by the fluctuations of whim and desire?

For the past 15 years, Professor Roy Baumeister — a social psychologist at Florida State University in the US who specialises in self-control, meaning and happiness, and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength — has been watching people in his laboratory turning down biscuits, tuning out distractions or holding their arms in icy water in order to better understand what it is that either keeps our New Year resolutions on track or entices us to deviate with disturbing ease.

Describing willpower to the packed auditorium at Sydney’s Happiness & Its Causes conference in May 2014 as the “greatest of human strengths, the psychological basis of morality and the basis of free will”, Baumeister went on to explain exactly how willpower works and how it can enhance our lives. “Willpower is like a muscle,” he said. “When used, it gets tired.”

A simple research experiment illustrated the theory. After exposing participants to the smell of chocolate cake baking, Baumeister offered half the group the cake to eat and the other half a radish. All were then put to a hard task and monitored for their perseverance. While the chocolate-eating group stuck with the project for an average of 18 minutes, the radish group lasted a mere eight minutes. Resisting temptation, it seemed, had taken something out of them and affected their willpower more generally. In subsequent studies, Baumeister consistently showed that people’s self-control deteriorated over time.

“As the day wears on, people get worse and worse and are more likely to give in to temptation. If you are spending a day at the beach, there may be no effect, but the accumulating demands of the day can really deplete you,” he said, helping to explain the end-of-the-day fridge raid.

In a process he describes as “ego-depletion”, Baumeister found that exerting self-control in one area will use up energy for further regulation in other areas of life. Things you wouldn’t typically think of as requiring willpower, such as starting a new job or meeting the in-laws for the first time, also rely on — and exhaust — this limited well of strength.

The muscle action at work is the habit of noticing what you are about to do and choosing to do the most difficult thing instead of the easiest.

Decision-making is another willpower sapper. “As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually deplete the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option,” said Baumeister. US President Barack Obama applies this science directly by deciding to wear only blue or grey suits, saying, “I don’t want to waste any time deciding what to wear or what to eat. I have difficult decisions to make.”

“It’s a very good application of our strategy,” said Baumeister, “The more you follow a routine, plan in advance or operate on the basis of habit, the less moment-to-moment strain there is and the less demand for willpower.”

Further experiments showed that when given a sugar boost, participants’ self-control spiked again. Rather disturbing evidence of this was found within a Jewish-Israeli court. Making between 14 and 35 rulings per day, the eight judges studied were far more likely to grant parole directly after morning and afternoon tea compared to other times of the day. This helps explain why calorie-restricted dieters struggle. “Our advice for dieters is that it’s important to eat healthy foods first. That gives enough willpower to persist,” Baumeister said.

The good news, he shared, is that, just like a muscle, willpower gets stronger the more you exercise it. Looking for proof, Baumeister had students enrol in regimes that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand, speak in complete sentences and refrain from swearing. After several weeks, the students also smoked, drank and snacked less, watched less television, studied more and washed more dishes. Committing to any small, consistent act of self-control such as standing up straight or cutting out sweets, it appears, can increase overall willpower. The muscle action at work is the habit of noticing what you are about to do and choosing to do the most difficult thing instead of the easiest.

Beyond these measures, Baumeister found a variety of things can produce short-term improvements in self-control, such as thinking about somebody else who has good self-control, believing you have lots of willpower, and having a strong motivation.

The willpower instinct

Health psychologist and author of Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self-Control, Kelly McGonigal is another scientist passionate about the topic. Quite simply, she says, willpower is about “harnessing the three powers of I will, I won’t and I want” in order to help us achieve our goals. It helps, she says, to understand the neuroscience behind why self-control is so sticky.

“Thanks to the architecture of the modern human brain, we have multiple selves that compete for control of our thoughts, feelings and actions,” says McGonigal. “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 wants to maximise current pleasure and minimise current stress, pain and discomfort.”

Every willpower challenge, McGonigal explains, is a tug-of-war between the primitive brain that sees a cheeseburger and responds with “I want” and the pre-frontal cortex, which understands the longer-term consequences.

“I think of it as the immediate self versus the future self,” McGonigal says. “We need both systems for survival. But a lot of our modern challenges tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.”

To put the higher self in charge, she says, we need to strengthen the systems of self-awareness and self-control. “When we do, we will find the willpower and the ‘want power’ to do the harder thing.”

Another layer of the willpower matrix lies in how our physiology responds to the promise of reward, explains McGonigal. “At the sight of a chocolate biscuit, the brain launches a neurotransmitter called dopamine into the areas of the brain that control attention, motivation and action. These messengers tell your brain ‘must get chocolate now’, explaining the near automatic movement of your feet and hands into the bakery.”

"Freedom comes from letting go and surrendering. You can’t use what’s causing the problem to fix the problem.”

This is where we need to instigate what McGonigal calls the “willpower instinct”. “Just as strong as our urge to eat the tart, so too does self-control have a biological signature.” The opposite of “fight or flight”, it is what psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom calls the “pause and plan” response. The difference is that the brain recognises the threat as an internal one rather than a sabre-toothed tiger and triggers changes in the brain and body that help you slow down and control your impulses.

Right intention

After years of observing struggles with self-control through her practice as an insight meditation teacher and psychotherapist, Carol Perry believes focusing on willpower is the wrong approach. “I’ve done so many things in my life that one would assume required willpower: ski racing for Melbourne University, riding a motorbike from Singapore to Kathmandu, building a community from scratch when everyone was telling me I was mad and I stuck with it. However, none of those things I attribute to willpower.”

Willpower, Perry explains, takes an enormous amount of mental tension and effort. “Just like tuning a lute, if the strings are too tight they’ll eventually snap. Freedom comes from letting go and surrendering. You can’t use what’s causing the problem to fix the problem.”

The alternative, she says, is to hold a “fundamental intention”, which requires a much more gentle level of awareness. As a self-confessed chocoholic, rather than ban the substance outright, Perry’s fundamental intention to have a “healthy body and mind” guides her actions away from what is harmful to that.

“When I’ve made a fundamental choice about wanting a good quality of life, I don’t need willpower — I just need to remember. It’s still hard sometimes, but it isn’t exhausting in the same way that willpower is. It’s the middle way.”

McGonigal agrees. Rather than the brute strength to resist temptation, willpower, she says, is “remembering your bigger goals in the face of your immediate desires”.

Now that’s a muscle we could all flex a little more often.

4 ways to willpower

Kelly McGonigal’s sure-fire ways to boost willpower:

  • Breathe. Slowing the breath activates the pre-frontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the body and brain from a state of stress to self-control mode.
  • Meditate. Breath focus reduces cravings and teaches the mind how to handle both inner distractions (cravings, worries and desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights and smells).
  • Sleep. Sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose and you’ll soon crave sweets or caffeine. If you can’t have eight hours a night, research shows that a single good night’s sleep restores brain function to an optimal level.
  • Exercise. Australian researchers discovered exercise is the willpower “wonder drug”. In one experiment, even just 15 minutes of exercise a day was enough to reduce smoking, drinking, junk food consumption and spending.

Source: Maximum Willpower

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.

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