When we talk about willpower we usually refer to self-discipline; training ourselves and our conduct for personal improvement, or self-control; our ability to exert our will over our minds, bodies, and lives. For some people though, Will Power is just an Australian motorsport driver.
These words certainly seem to bring about more pain than gain for a lot of us. Failure to exert our willpower can bring feelings of failure, low self-worth, and guilt. Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do exercising our will power?
Why can’t we say no to that piece of cake? Why can’t we say we’ll go to the gym and actually go? Why can’t we finish that project or make that call when we say we will…?
Research tells us that willpower, something we rely on so much, is actually a rather limited mind resource, especially since the world around us seems to have been created to destroy our self-discipline and self-control; colourful supermarket aisles packed with all sorts of delicious treats, tempting aromas lingering out of coffee shops and restaurants, hypnotizing TV ads and programs, the highly distracting, as I call it, wide world spider web… everything around us has been designed by us for our own pleasure and comfort.
We have, very effectively, constructed our world so that we just can’t resist certain things. And yet, we are hopelessly trying and trying to resist them relying solely on willpower.
But with such an overload of pleasure inducing information bathing our senses every day, as I tell my clients, you have to become a ninja to accomplish anything worthwhile these days!
British psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a survey of over 3,000 people where 88% of all resolutions ended in failure. Why?
The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, apparently it hasn’t expanded quite enough. This is because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides resolutions. Scientists have discovered that it is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory, and solving abstract problems. So, asking it to lose weight, for example, may be asking it to do one thing too many!
To further illustrate this, in another experiment performed at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as the students given two digits. The reason is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain, making it that much harder to resist dessert. The prefrontal cortex is so overloaded with other tasks, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation!
This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in chocolate, or a take away!
In fact, one study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex! An overworked brain struggles to resist temptation.
So, while most of us assume that willpower, or the lack of it, is a personality trait, and that we would follow through on our resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline, research suggests that willpower is inherently limited, and maybe overrated. But there is hope!
Just like we work out and strengthen our muscles, we can strengthen our willpower too. How?
By purposefully doing those things we may not feel like doing.
For example, this week, when you come home from work, instead of sitting in front of the TV because you are too tired to go for a walk… make a point of going for that walk regardless of how you are feeling.
Do you like your tea with biscuits? Instead, make a point of going the whole week drinking your tea with no biscuits.
Tempted to surf the net? Decide to avoid your social media accounts for the next seven days.
This is an exercise in overcoming the resistance of your body, mind and feelings. By purposefully doing small things like these you’ll be working out and strengthening your willpower muscle, and doing other bigger things will become easier and easier.