Willpower and won’t power

Ever notice how much easier it is to do well when you’re already doing well? How much easier it is to be courageous when you’re already being courageous? How much easier it is to thrive when you’re already thriving? It’s a momentum thing – keeping things moving is far easier than getting them to move in the first place. Anyone who’s ever tried to push a stalled car (before versus after it’s started rolling) knows what I mean.

Momentum applies to things we’d rather stop doing, as well. As in how easy it is to keep eating nachos as long as there are still some left on your plate. As in how much easier it is to just keep watching TV instead of pushing the remote’s off button and doing something else. As in how much easier it is to tolerate a messy desk than take the few minutes needed to actually clean it up.

When Willpower Won’t

I wanted to see if I could break the pattern, specifically as it applied to my love of hot dog and fries. (Hey, I’m not particularly proud of this, but I do it for you!)

  • Step One – I first considered, in embarrassing depth, what it’d like for me to HAVE french fries with lunch. (Summary: MMmmm good!)
  • Step Two – I then considered how I’d feel afterwards? (Bloated, stuffed, uncomfortable, mad at myself, etc.)
  • Step Three – I realized that as much as I liked Step One’s outcome, I did not want Step Two’s outcome.
  • Step Four – I went to a local hot dog joint to see if I could break my ‘dog-and-fries’ momentum.

And I DID! I ordered a hot dog with a side salad, instead. YEA, me!

Rationalizing the Rations

So what happened here? Let me break it down, as it happened, so you can see how quickly willpower can unravel.

First, why two dogs? Oh, look, a Special – two dogs and fries; substitute salad for fries, extra $1. Besides, I can take the second dog home and have it later. Done. But, boy, this first dog sure tastes good. And I don’t really want the salad anymore, so what if…what…if…I take the salad home and enjoy the second dog, here and now?! Yes, that’s a plan – a very good plan. Besides, I didn’t get the fries so I deserve a little treat, don’t I? Done and done.

And just that fast, the second dog was gone.

Willpower is a Limited Resource

Fast-forward to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, who made the point in a TED Talk that the problem with us being ‘good’ – by not ordering fries, in my case – is that it quickly turns into us believing that we’ve been ‘good enough’ to deserve a little treat. And that’s exactly what happened to me – the second dog was the ‘treat’ for not having fries.

McGonigal says not to worry, because there are 5 specific steps we can readily employ:

  1. Train our willpower physiology – Specifically through:
  1. More sleep (an hour more can do wonders to improve one’s cognitive functioning, which ultimately is what’s in charge of our short-term versus long-term decision making processes.
  2. More exercise.
  3. Better eating.
  4. Reduce the use of the willpower we inattentively use and use what we use more prudently. (Willpower, like muscle power, is a limited resource. As you use it, it tires and becomes harder to deploy in the future, she says.)
  • Forgive ourselves – Specifically by reminding ourselves that failure is part of the process, failure, facilitates learning far better than success does, and that no one is perfect, anyway, so don’t beat yourself up for being human.
  • Making friends with our Future Self – Check this out: She posits that the weaker our relationship is with our Future Self, the harder it is to maintain willpower because willpower is ultimately a choice between what would benefit our Future Self, versus our Present Self. And if our Future Self is estranged from us (or a stranger to us) the operative question unfolds as: “Why in the world would I do something to protect/help a stranger by depriving my Present Self of something I really, REALLY, want here and now? McGonigal suggests that when we are in regular conversation with our Future Self, it becomes far easier to be ‘altruistic’ towards him/her.
  • Predicting our failure – Imagining failure helps willpower more than imagining success because imagining success makes us feel like we’re that much closer to it, which justifies (and inevitably condones) us backsliding. So, better to write out our predicted excuses for backsliding – become detectives of our future failures – so we can then decide how we WANT to respond to, and thus be better prepared for, those excuses when they ultimately (and inevitably) show themselves.
  • Surfing the urge – An interesting technique research-validated, that helps us increase our ‘distress tolerance’ – the best predictor of willpower – where you basically give the distress full permission to display itself within us so that we can better understand what happens when it happens. Doing so helps us ride the wave without feeling drowned by it. Here’s how:
    1. Notice the thought, craving, or feeling.
    2. Accept and attend to the inner experience.
    3. Breathe and give your brain and body a chance to pause and plan.
    4. Broaden your attention, and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal.

Barry Zweibel
Leadership Traction

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