The Willpower Dilemma: Part 1

Self-control, restraint, willpower; whatever you call it, it is a limited resource. I would go so far as to say it’s rare! So many people don’t have enough of it, yet this is so critical if you want to move forward in the world. Whether you want to lose weight, quit smoking, get to bed earlier, or floss regularly, you need willpower. But did you know that it is not your fault if you have trouble with self-control? If you’re curious, read on as I discuss the willpower dilemma

In most areas of life, I have no problems being incredibly disciplined and focused. But when it comes to accomplishing something I don’t really enjoy, procrastination turns me into a distracted mess. I’m tragic! Sound familiar?

In one of my favorite books, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath liken willpower and instinct to a rider on an elephant. Willpower is the rider while the elephant represents instinct. From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings have evolved running from tigers and having to withstand periods of starvation whereas willpower/decision making is a more recent necessity. The cave man didn’t need to choose from 50 different types of cereal at the supermarket.

From an evolutionary standpoint, instinct is far stronger than willpower and therein lies the dilemma; it’s not our fault that we have weak willpower; we evolved that way. Human instincts are in place for survival and all too often, we are blindly driven by them.

Many recent studies have confirmed the human weakness of willpower. A famous study by Baumeister examined willpower only to find that it weakens when called upon continuously. Another study, known as the Chocolate-Chip study, confirmed this. In this study, a group of university students were told they were to take part in a taste perception study and to report to the lab hungry. They were asked to sit in front of a bowl of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and another bowl, filled with radishes. Half the participants were asked to eat two or three cookies, but no radishes. The other half were asked to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies. Naturally, the cookie eaters had no struggle resisting the radishes, and surprisingly, none of the radish-eaters snuck a cookie, true willpower at work.

At that point they were told the “taste study” was finished and a second set of researchers entered the room to have the students take part in a supposedly unrelated task, finding out who’s better at solving problems, college or high school students. They were presented with a series of geometric puzzles. They were given multiple opportunities but were not told the puzzles were designed to be unsolvable. The idea behind the puzzles was to see how long the students would persist in trying to solve them.

The chocolate-chip cookie eaters spent nineteen minutes on the tasks, with thirty-four well-intentioned attempts. The radish-eaters persisted far less and give up after only eight minutes and managed only nineteen attempts. Far less! Why might you ask? They ran out of willpower! You see, willpower is easily worn-out: The radish-eaters had used up all their self-control resisting the cookies and had nothing left when it came to the puzzles.

So what can you do about it? The first solution is to shape the path. In previously mentioned book Switch, they suggest that the elephant will more willingly take the path of least resistance if you make it easier for them. I think we all know how hard it can be to break an ingrained habit. I’ve found their suggestion to be a really good one.

Here’re my top two practical suggestions to get change started and help make it less work for the elephant:

      1. If you’re trying to get to the gym after work, bring your gym bag with you, and DON’T go home first! Or if you’re an early morning workout person, layout your gear the night before so morning prep is easier.
      2. Avoid a snack attack by buying single serving sized snack packs. Many snack foods are irresistible, you can’t just have one and before you know it, you’ve eaten the whole packet!

With these two simple tips, you can eliminate the path of least resistance for the elephant. He can not take the easier method of skipping the workout or stopping while eating. I am sure your willpower is weak somewhere in your life; identify where the weakness begins so that you can plan steps that will eliminate the easier path for your instinct, allowing your willpower to continue stronger throughout the remaining part of the day.



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