Where is your Willpower?

Happy New Year! I hope it’s a good one for all of you. Did you make New Year's resolutions? Are they faltering yet? Hopefully not.

But if they are, here's what psychologists are discovering. It's not your fault! That's the good news. The bad news? Willpower is a mental resource that is extremely limited. Worse yet, it resides in the front part of the brain, where a lot of other important tasks must be performed. The same area is in charge of keeping us focused, of handling short term memory, and of solving abstract problems. Whew! That's a lot to handle in one small part of the brain.

So what is willpower? We can’t see it, touch it, smell it. In fact, we mostly recognize it when it fails us. Where did those cookies go? Why is my fabulous manuscript not finished? Willpower is like a muscle; it can only be used so much before it simply gives up.

Psychologists have done many studies proving the weakness of willpower. For example, one study at Stanford asked one group of participants to memorize 2 numbers. The other group was asked to memorize 7 numbers. Then, each group was asked to choose between two snacks - the chocolate cake, or a bowl of fruit. The group that had 7 numbers was twice as likely to choose the cake. Just 5 digits weakened their willpower to the extent they gave in to temptation. Hmmm.

Did you agree to lose weight this year? Bad news. The ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed brain. Studies show that people perform worse on tests requiring self-control after they've fasted for 3 hours.

So, what can you do in recognition of the fact that willpower is a fallible concept, not entirely in your control?

First, limit the number of resolutions you want to work on at one time. You simply can't overtax your willpower. Second, aim for moderation in your goals. Try for slow and steady progress, rather than going whole hog, failing to achieve your goal, and then feeling defeated. People who achieve one goal, feel energized and more hopeful about achieving another. Likewise, if you fail at a goal, you may find it harder to then work hard at another.

Most interestingly, studies have found that redirecting your thoughts may be the best way to supplement your willpower. --->--->--->
A study with 4 year old children offered them a second marshmallow if they'd wait 20 minutes before eating the first marshmallow. The successful children found things to do like play with their shoe laces, sing songs, etc. The theory is that they are not necessarily better at exercising self-restraint, but they are better at redirecting their thoughts. (Those same children went on to have higher SATs and lower body mass index as adults.)

Maybe it's too late to go back to your 4 year old self and sing songs. But you can focus your thoughts on what you want to achieve now. Post a picture of yourself at a better weight. Hang that dress you want to wear right where you'll see it (preferably, it will block your way into the kitchen). Stick a motivating quote on your computer monitor.

Forgive yourself if things don't go perfectly. Here's a Japanese proverb I like: Fall down seven times. Get up eight.



Tonya said...

Wow, you've given me a lot to think about. No wonder I'm having trouble staying focused on writing and editing while I'm going to school full time and managing the house.


Linda Warren said...

Thank you for this post. Very informative. Now I know why I don't have any willpower. When I want that extra cookie, I'm going to start singing. LOL


Carly Carson said...

Tonya, Yup, you've got to give yourself a break. Literally, your brain can only take so much at one time. There's a lot more evidence besides what I shared.

Linda, hahaha, please let us know if the singing diet works!

Nicole North said...

Fantastic post! I've just been learning about this myself. Apparently willpower and self-discipline are the same things (or similar). And one of my goals for this year is to have better discipline and better productivity. I learned that the front part of the brain is also in charge of impulse control. Those with better impulse control can delay gratification and are more successful in life. This can be learned, even if you're an adult. So that's what I'm working on. :)

Natasha said...

Great post, Carly! I've always found visible reminders always help me stay on target...not to say I have that willpower for long :)

Carly Carson said...

Nicole, yes, the front part of the brain has a lot of stuff it's responsible for.

Which is why, Natasha, that willpower doesn't last as long as we'd like. It gets crowded out.

Lilly Cain said...

Interesting post Carly! I am teaching a session at my RWA group this weekend about goal setting and it plays into the throught that you are discussing here, about how a slow and steady pace will work, and as you see the results pile up, you are more likely to continue your goals. I never thought about the fact that will power was so finite though!