The Secret of Ever-Lasting Willpower

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How does it seem that some people are able to stare down temptation, and yet others give in all too easily? And how come so many of us feel that we exist in the second of those two groups?

January, of course, is the standard time of the year for New Year’s resolutions, and the breaking of those New Year’s resolutions. Have you given up smoking yet? Lost weight yet? Been to the gym faithfully? A recent coffee break conversation centred around the futility of going to the gym during January because it was over-run with all those people making resolutions, but if you just waited a couple of weeks, then it was all back to normal. One has to wonder, is that because the resolution-makers lost their 5lbs, or did they just give up, lacking self-discipline and willpower?

The debate has been raging (at least, what counts for “raging” in positive psychology circles) if willpower is really a muscle that gets exhausted (Roy Baumeister) or if, given the right mindset and mindfulness, willpower can exist seemingly unendingly (Carol Dweck and Ellen Langer). Both have some science on their side, and both are probably right to a certain extent.

But wait – there’s more. What if you circumvented the entire discussion? Enter a new paper from  Wilhelm Hofmann, Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, using experience sampling method. When are people fighting temptation, and when do they succeed?

The secret to success? Avoid the battle entirely.

Are you trying to avoid eating cookies? Don’t go down that aisle at the supermarket. Don’t buy the cookies. Resisting once (at the store) is easier than resisting several times (every time you walk into your kitchen). This is the same sort of reasoning that leads people to freeze their credit cards in a vat of water, and only after it has thawed can they use it for purchasing. (This doesn’t work if you have your credit card number memorized or emblazoned in your computer’s online shopping cookies… Hmmm… there are those cookies again!)

Essentially, don’t get yourself into situations where you will need to face temptation, and then you will need to rely less on your weak and weakening willpower.

A great summary of the research, with links to other sites, is available at: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/the-willpower-trick/

This also calls to mind work by the Heath brothers in Switch, where they discuss the importance of the path, and not just the “elephant” (the emotional brain) and the “rider” (the logical brain, that wants to take control of the irrational elephant). If you can create a proper path or context, then the rider has much less work to do, because you will use the power of the elephant, responding to the context, to go where the rider would like to go anyhow. The rider needs to think ahead and plan for the context, and then the elephant merrily walks along as pre-determined.

So what are you waiting for – now you can go out and achieve all of those goals! It was never about weak willpower – it was just the wrong context. Change the context and change your life.

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  1. […] that self-control is less depleting if it is autonomous.  And that mindfulness can serve as an unlimitable source of energy that helps to fuel willpower on an ongoing […]

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