Who is Will Power and why is he always Leaving?
Fighting an urge becomes meaningless when the mind is equipped with the right tools.
Photo Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash
“Well, you’ve done it again! You just had to eat that whole brownie! Man, you have zero willpower” - Self
The ability to resist temptation.
Once a source of incredible pride for me. Why? Well, for an obese, depressed kid who never knew the meaning of self-control to become someone who is viewed as a legend of willpower is quite the achievement.
I used to think that because I have this well-developed ability to say ‘no’ to temptation I was a giant of self-control. People who witnessed this skill in action were usually very impressed. I would get compliments on being able to walk by a tray of warm cookies at a work function while they couldn’t. It was hard not to develop a certain ego around this.
When faced with the inevitable question of “how do you do it?”, the usual answer was an almost flippant “I guess you either got it or you don’t”.
But if someone lacks this perceived ‘power’, can they learn it? Can it be taught? Are people who seem to lack this magic forever bound to the negative effects of falling for temptation?
Worth a look.
But first, a definition
According to the American Psychological Association or APA, most psychology researchers define willpower as:
The ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations
The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse
The conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self
A limited resource capable of being depleted
A limited resource
As that last point in the APA definition points out: willpower is a limited resource. One can ostensibly muster enough of the stuff to resist those warm cookies momentarily.
But that power also depends largely on individual circumstance.
Take for example someone who usually eats whatever they want and doesn’t fuss about it. Put them beside someone who has been dieting for a few weeks and place that tray of cookies in front of both.
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to figure out the likely outcome of that contest; and this is without even getting into the super addictive substances out there.
Repeating this type of mental control over and over for days, weeks, months or years becomes a serious challenge that grows in its own power as time goes on. Over the long term, this ‘Fort of No’ usually crumbles.
The conclusion that study after study (and I bet most of our own experiences) comes to is this: willpower doesn’t work in the long run and certainly not for everyone.
Sure seems fickle and hard to pin down.
So does that mean only some of us have it and others don’t?
Part of us
Call it determination, self-control, self-discipline – it all boils down to the same thing in this context, and it has been a part of our survival mechanism for a very, very long time.
Way back when we started to figure out that as tribes our chances of survival increased, it was our perceived willpower’s time to shine!
The price of increased safety and more reliable access to food was that we had to learn to share. In order to do that, one needs a certain level of discipline, because, let’s face it – the temptation of hoarding it all for ourselves is strong - even to this day.
In a 2011 study about self-control/willpower published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers had found that the test subjects who perceived themselves as having strong willpower reported fewer temptations throughout the study period.
In essence, the self-control champions were rarely using their power, and in the end it came down to opportunity - not a special individual skill.
Conclusion: no one lacks willpower. They lack consideration of consequence.
So why don’t all of us use it?
It seems that the folly with what we call ‘willpower’ is really the short-term focus on our impulses vs. our envisioned goals. That is exactly why it fails in the long term.
Real success isn’t in how strong our resolve is to say no to something that’s directly in front of us in that moment. Success lies in the act of finding something more important to protect than succumbing to the temptation in front of you.
You don’t lack self-control. It is a natural part of you. You lack a clear, unobstructed view of what you could become. You lack motivation.
I don’t remember where I heard this quote because it’s been a very long time, but it goes something like this:
Nothing tastes as good as feeling and looking good feels.
Those words I live by.
Hey fried chicken, you free on Saturday?
Photo Credit: Japheth Mast via Unsplash
There are two components of willpower/urge management that I have found work beautifully. They are presented here as they relate to unhealthy food and drink, but can really be extrapolated to anything.
Form and maintain good habits
In the short term, the first natural step is really to avoid the situations where temptations exist in the first place. If this isn’t possible, the quickest way to feel like a willpower expert is to defer whatever temptation is in front of you to another day. A designated treat day that you have every so often is a great trick.
It’s a whole lot easier to say ‘no’ when your brain knows that this rejection isn’t permanent and that you and the object of your desire will see each other again soon.
However, the most important strategy in the long term to avoid something damaging is to truly appreciate the work and dedication that has already gone into your health and fitness goals. That is not easy. Pat yourself on the back and look to the future.
Envision what you could be and how you could feel down the road if you keep up what you are doing. It is this moment that can make any temptation in front of us an unworthy intruder into our hopes and dreams.
Motivation is magic.
The bottom line
We all have what it takes to say ‘no’ to temptation, yet it is difficult to hold on to this in the long term.
Instead of looking at temptation and then mustering the power to resist it, a better path is to keep your vision to the future and picture yourself in better health and shape for passing on a momentary pleasure.
With good habits and consistent motivation, the need for willpower simply becomes a non-factor. You are saying ‘yes’ to a happier, healthier and stronger you.
Until next time,
Be the past you that your future you will be grateful for!
Got a question or comment? Drop me a line in the comments section. I always love to hear from you
Hey, why not share this post with someone you think may find it interesting?
Brains Before Brawn is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.