Many of us have good intentions to make what we perceive to be positive changes to our lives. Whether that is to save more money, eat healthier, do more exercise, wake up earlier, watch less TV, work harder, these changes we intend on making will most likely fail at some stage. Old routines and habits will start to quickly crawl their way back and the excuses will come flooding in, “I will go for a run next week”. I am sure you can relate to this. Today’s blog concerns why the majority of people are so poor at sticking to their long-term goals? The answer – People often rely on a pretty unreliable and fragile motivational source known as will-power.
I am sure you are familiar with the term will-power. “Lack of will-power” has become a popular turn of phrase in the English language. The term is often heralded as this mysterious source of power that either facilitates or hinders positive life changes. Take, for example, the results of a large survey carried out by the American Psychological Association. The survey asked about participants’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes (eating better, quitting smoking, exercising more). Survey participants cited “a lack of willpower” as the No. 1 reason for not following through with positive life changes.
So, lets clarify what this mysterious power is then. Will-power refers to the ability to resist short-term temptation in favour of a long-term, more valued goal. There are countless everyday situations to which we can apply this definition. You want to lose weight, but that cake Susan brought around to your house the other day is sitting there staring at you. You want to start getting fit, but you can’t get off the sofa because Netflix has just started playing another episode of Game of Thrones. You want to save money, but Dominoes just sent you a 50% off voucher. These will-power dilemmas we frequently encounter represent a conflict, do we indulge in the short-term temptation now or do we resist and reap the rewards further down the line. I think you can hazard a guess as to which option usually wins. Choosing a long-term reward over immediate gratification (temptations) poses a major challenge to many people.
As suggested, will-power frequently fails us. When it does fail, behaviour can become irrational, impulsive and emotionally driven which leads us to cave into the immediate, ‘pleasurable’ temptations. Of course, will-power is not a universal resource, rather, some people will be more susceptible to will-power failure than others. Unfortunately, a lack of self-regulatory ability has been associated with many of life’s cultural and social issues, such as, drug/gambling addictions, financial insecurity, crime and poor physical and mental health. Given these implications to society, will-power has become a hot topic in academia over the past few decades.
One of the first studies to observe this phenomenon was in the 1960’s, by Professor Walter Mischel – The Marshmallow Test. For an overview of the study watch the entertaining video below. Researchers explored self-control in children using a simple marshmallow test. Researchers found that only a few children were able to demonstrate delayed gratification and hold out for the second-marshmallow reward, with the majority caving in and eating the immediate reward. Amazingly, at a follow-up study 40 years later with the same participants, researchers found that the children who delayed their reward, as opposed to those who caved in, were far more successful in almost all areas of life! Therefore, the capacity for an individual to effectively use will-power is now considered an essential life skill and pivotal to success in many facets of life.
Will-power is evidently an important psychological construct that can help to explain human behaviour. However, to this date, researchers still cannot explicitly answer the question as to why will-power is so fragile and unreliable. I will offer one interesting evolutionary perspective which has seen support within the literature and suggests the fragility of will-power was developed to ensure human survival…
Is poor self-control all our fault?
The world around us has been evolving at such a high speed, but have our brains been keeping up? Lets take a quick step back in time, a time when resources were considerably more scarce than what they are today. Will-power was developed as a motivational system in place to ensure human survival. This motivational system would be used to achieve a balance between exploiting and exploring resources. Cavemen and women couldn’t just sit down all day and eat up all their food supplies (exploiting), eventually something would have to motivate them to give into temptation and explore other food sources or else they would be left to starve. Thus, will-power was required in extreme circumstances and HAD to break at some stage!
Fast forward to now and this motivational system of will-power still exists today. However, if you picture the modern world, do we really need our brains telling us to give into temptation and continually seek new resources? The answer is quite simply no! I live in a relatively average-sized town and within walking distance I have a KFC, McDonald’s, about 5 kebab shops, at least 8 pubs, you get the picture. We do not need our brain telling us to search for alternative resources anymore as they are not scarce, we have them in abundance! However, our brains just have not evolved at the same speed as our environment and it will still employ this motivational tactic if we let it. Will-power simply is not built to withstand this level of temptation we encounter on a daily basis and whilst it may have been essential in years gone by, it now makes us eat more than we should, buy unnecessary things and ultimately give into stuff we know we shouldn’t.
What can we do about all this then?
I hope I have reinforced the idea of will-power being a terrible type of long-term motivation. Although it might be good to get you started it will eventually reduce over time and leave you giving up on those long-term goals you have started and failed at over the past decade. So here are 3 tips on how to use will-power effectively…
- Focus on the immediate benefits. Try to overcome temptations by moving the benefits of the long-term goal to the present. There is a wealth of research that tells us, as human beings, we place greater value and are more motivated by things which are more immediate than things which we have to wait for. Picture coming in from a long hard day at work, you want to go for a run but you’re feeling exhausted, a classic will-power dilemma. To overcome this conflict, focus on the immediate benefits of the run, maybe that is listening to a new podcast or music, running with a friend, getting outdoors, setting performance goals there and then etc. A common mistake to make is to only focus on the long-term goal (e.g., losing weight or getting fitter). When we are confronted with a will-power conflict, those long-term goals will not be motivating or valued enough in the moment to overcome it. Focusing solely on long-term goals will not give you the regular motivational boosts and feelings of accomplishment you need to keep going This is personally my favourite tip and is supported by an abundance of research, including my Masters project!
- Reduce the effort of overcoming temptation. Relatively simplistic, the more effort it takes to overcome a temptation, the greater likelihood of you giving into it. Reducing the effort or even removing the temptation all together can greatly lower your reliance on will-power. Take, for example, losing weight. Leaving food which you deem to be unhealthy in the house is making the whole process a lot harder. Just remove the temptations altogether! Additionally, meal prep or plan your meals in advance to avoid the effort of cooking when will-power is low. Lets take another example, doing more exercise. One of the hardest aspects about going for a run is just getting out the door, once you’re out, its done, you beat the temptations. So, make it easier for yourself, have your running kit ready when you get back from work, have your shoes ready to go, make the process as easy as possible. I personally used to do this with waking up early, I had my coffee cup underneath the coffee machine and a bowl for my cereal all ready to go!
- Finally, don’t dwell on failure. Will-power failure is inevitable. The very mechanics will-power is built on suggest it will fail at some stage no matter what. Achieving a long-term goal isn’t linear, there are going to be bumps in the road. So, don’t ruminate on these failures, failure at the end of the day is part of succeeding. Many scholars, whilst met with skepticism, believe will-power works like a muscle, the more we train will-power the stronger it gets and vice versa. Thus, it is important to not let failure inhibit your pursuit of the long-term goal (e.g., feeling guilty after having a takeaway when you’re trying to lose weight), rather, try identify what went wrong and not make the same mistake again so you can build your “will-power muscle”.
Take away messages
- Don’t rely on will-power to meet your long-term goals, it will eventually fail you!
- Will-power is a great motivational system to get you started with a new goal or new routine but eventually you need new, more high quality sources of motivation. Picture will-power like the first gear in a manual car, great to get you going, but eventually you need to shift gear to make progress…
- Focus on the immediate rather than long-term benefits! If only we were taught this from a young age, exercise for enjoyment, social purposes and personal challenge, not to be healthy or lose weight! This motivational shift will reduce your reliance on will-power!
- Change the environment around you to reduce or remove temptations. Temptation is incredibly powerful so it is important to reduce the effort involved in overcoming it!
- Don’t dwell on failures! Try and understand why you succumbed to the temptation and learn from it.
- Will-power is hypothesised to act like a muscle. There is good research out there which suggests you can train self-control. So try it!
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