Where’s the Willpower Store?

According to a number of long-term studies quoted in The Key to Health, Wealth and Success: Self-Control in Time magazine’s health website, children who exercised more self-control when they were four years old earned more income and did better in school 20 years later, than their peers who exercised less self-control.

It doesn’t take much social awareness to understand that people who exercise more self-control, as a rule, do better in life. Perhaps, years ago, the impulsive and quick to act survived better than the careful thinkers.  Perhaps they lived when the prudent, thoughtful person was killed by the sabertooth tiger. Today, we’re far more likely to die as a result of impulsive actions, then of taking a moment or two to think through our options.

Marshmallow Study

Widely known as the “marshmallow study,” scientists at Stanford looked at whether children could resist eating one marshmallow right in front of them.  If they could resist eating the one, they got two marshmallows 15 minutes later. As reported in Time Magazine, the study doesn’t say anything about what you could do today if you happen to be one of the children who ate the marshmallow quickly. It also doesn’t say anything about whether the children who could resist simply didn’t like marshmallows.

I can resist coconut frosted cupcakes until the cows come home. I can resist a lot of things I don’t like. The problem is resisting the things you do like.

The article was actually quite depressing. Apart from saying that 7% of the children appeared to be able to improve their self-control over the course of their lives, the researchers (at least as quoted in Time) had no suggestions to make.  However, people who study how people change know that there are a lot of interventions any individual can make to improve his or her own outcome in life.

No Willpower Store

There is no willpower store. If you find yourself saying, “I simply don’t have enough willpower,” it’s not like you can go somewhere and buy more.

The truth is, you already have enough. People who can resist temptation use strategies that are entirely different from the behaviors used by the people who succumb. A different report of the same study, covered in the New Yorker magazine a year earlier, provides direction.

If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In other words, you can learn how to use the willpower you do have in a direction that’s useful.

Willpower is not about resisting. Willpower is actually about moving towards something else. It is very much easier to take action in the direction of a contradictory goal, then it is to stand still and resist the pull of something attractive, that isn’t in your overall best interest.

The twelve-step programs that fight active addictions work, in part, not by telling their members to stand outside the bar and not go in, but by teaching new and very different behaviors that have nothing to do with alcohol.  People who learn live without addictive substances develop lives that intersect very much less with drugs and alcohol.

People who stand around the buffet line at a crowded party are very much likely to eat more calories than the people who take a plate of healthy food and move to the other side of the room, sitting down in a low soft couch that’s difficult to get out of.

We know that telling people about savings rates and the benefits available to them in a 401(k) match does little to increase the savings rate of any corporate employee pool. What does work is changing the default. If people are automatically signed up for 401(k) deduction when they start at a new job, everyone saves more.  When you select restaurants that don’t have an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” or that don’t put chips and bread on the table when you arrive, you will probably eat much less than you will if you spend your entire mealtime using willpower to resist the basket of chips.

If you don’t have enough willpower, it’s usually because you’re trying to use it as “won’t power.” The truth is, humans have very very little “won’t power,” and enormous reserves of willpower. People who successfully use willpower focus on something they are moving toward, not on something they are trying to resist.

If you’re trying not to eat cupcakes, and cupcakes are in the room, it’s going to be hard. Even if you successfully resist the cupcakes, chances are you will use up all of your resistance for the day, and then succumb to some other temptation later that afternoon. However, if you ignore the cupcakes by engaging in a different activity that has nothing to do with eating, you will find that your small steps toward the new goal actually create more energy and resolve.

“Won’t power” quickly depletes and runs dry.  Willpower, appropriately applied, replenishes itself every time it is used.

Have you replaced “won’t power” with will power?  Let me know in the comments.

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