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Willpower, Smillpower. A Better Alternative.

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Friday May 22, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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I started training in martial arts when I was in the eighth grade because I wanted to learn how to fight. By that time in my life, I had many encounters with people who were physically stronger and certainly more intimidating than I was, and thought that I needed Jackie Chan-style skills to minimize my chances of personal bodily harm. With the help of Miyagi-like instructors, I realized that fighting was only a small part of personal safety—the defensive part. It was the strategies for avoiding and mitigating situations that lead to harm—the offensive part—that undoubtedly had the greatest effect on my personal safety over the years. As it turned out, "how can I defend myself from attackers?" was the wrong question. The question I should have asked was "how can I maximize my personal safety?" Similarly, the question "how can I increase my willpower?" will provide us with some helpful answers, but an increase in willpower is only a means to an end. That end, is avoiding behaviors counterproductive to achieving your goals, and there is a much more effective way than relying on willpower.

First a definition and some important facts about willpower. Willpower can broadly be defined as a subset of self-control dealing with the deliberate ability to resist temptation—a conflict between our physiological and personal goals. "Willpower" is what we are said to use when we manage to stop eating from the wholesale club-sized bag of potato chips even though we have a powerful urge to keep eating. There has been quite a bit of research in this area in the last couple decades much of which has been conducted by social psychologist Roy Baumeister. Through the work of Baumeister and others, research suggests the following key findings on willpower:

Willpower is a limited resource similar to muscle strength. Just as we can only lift a weight a limited number of times before muscle fatigue, we can only avoid temptation a limited number of times before fatigue—this is know as ego depletion (Baumeister & Vohs, 2003; Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007).
Ego depletion occurs across all domains. For example, if you spend your day forcing yourself to do work rather than relax, you are far more likely to give in to snacking on junk food due to fatigued willpower (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007).
Willpower/self-control relies on glucose (sugar) as a limited energy source. A single act of self-control measurably reduces our glucose levels, and glucose in the form of a drink increases willpower (Gailliot et al., 2007), demonstrating that a clear biological correlate to willpower exists (just another line of evidence demonstrating that the mind is not separate from the body, but a property of it).
With the exception of replenishing the glucose levels in your body throughout the day, virtually all suggestions one might find to increase willpower are cognitive strategies that are no match for the powerful physiological influences people face every day. It is this over-reliance on one's willpower that leads to eventual failure for so many people. Ironically, one's willpower is greatly biologically influenced if not determined. In other words, we can play all the mind games we want to attempt to increase our willpower, and they will have some effect, but the effects are limited by our biology. So what do we do? Start by realizing that you are up against an enemy you can at best constantly fight off, but you can never defeat. This doesn't make you powerless or even weak; it makes you human. To win the war, avoid the fight.

Perhaps the expression that best sums up this strategy for avoiding behaviors counterproductive to achieving your goals is "out of sight, out of mind." It is about taking control of your environment and avoiding the temptation that causes stress, the inability to concentrate, ego depletion, and ultimately giving in to your desires at the expense of your goals and well-being. The use of your willpower is the defensive strategy that only plays a small part in avoiding behaviors counterproductive to achieving your goals whereas the use of your intellect is the offensive strategy that has a much greater effect. The use of intellect mainly involves planning an environment for yourself where willpower is rarely needed. Here are two tips that should be all you need to minimize your need for willpower.

Choose one act of willpower over hundreds. While it is true that exercising self-control does appear to strengthen willpower, the effect is insignificant compared to the effect of avoiding the need for willpower to begin with. Imagine you love chocolate (won't be that difficult for most people). You can buy a case of your favorite chocolates and have them on your desk where you work all day. If you do this, your willpower will be taxed heavily all throughout the day when you look at the chocolates, catch a whiff of them, or even think about their proximity to your mouth. This could result in hundreds of uses of willpower in a single day. You may make it through without giving in to the heavenly treat, and even if you manage to fight off the regular urges, it won't be easy. Now, what if through one act of willpower, you chose not to buy that case of chocolates? You can do this by playing out how your future self will be tormented by having the chocolates and make the obvious good choice. One act of willpower is all it takes.

Avoid situations where you know you will be tempted. One of the most effective strategies used by addicts is avoiding situations they commonly associate with their addiction. This means that gamblers should stay away from casinos, drunks should stay away from bars, and porn-addicts should stay away from the Internet. This works just as well for non-addicts. If you find it takes tremendous willpower to stay focused on work because of your constant use of Facebook, then block Facebook from your computer. If you find it takes tremendous willpower to go to your favorite restaurant without ordering a 4000 calorie meal, then stop going to that restaurant. This avoidance strategy should be used until such a time when the temptation wanes, and you no longer have a strong association with the environment or situation and the behavior you are trying to avoid. Also, you can cut back on the situations rather than avoid them all together. I love going out to eat. One of the strategies I used for losing over 25 pounds (and keeping it off for almost a year now) is allowing myself to indulge in a big dinner out a couple times a week rather than about six times per week.

Stop pretending you will win against your physiological urges—you won't. You may win some battles, but you will lose the war, and your wins come at the expense of torment, loss of concentration, and ego depletion, which just greatly increases your odds at losing the next battle—even if with a different opponent. Realize that evolution has equipped us with some very powerful goal-driven physiological systems that directly contradict our personal goals (e.g., our biological goal to store as many calories as possible). While resistance may be futile, through proper planning and single acts of willpower we can create an environment where there is nothing to resist.

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Willpower, choice, and self-control.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current directions in psychological science, 16(6), 351–355.
Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., … Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325.
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 943–947.

Podcast Episode: Willpower, Smillpower. A Better Alternative.

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