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Free: Your toolkit for change (part 3 of 5)


How important is willpower in our efforts to swap bad habits for good? Every high achiever's story seems to glorify the strength of willpower over adversity. Think of any rags to riches tale or sportsman's battle and the underlying message is that dedication and hard work are all it takes.

In many stories we learn that violent change wrought by the brave and resolute is the only solution. We find this inspiring because it makes us believe that with enough incentive we would have the inner strength to manage just like our heroes.

You will read endless books and articles about how it is the most important skill to develop for success and happiness but rather than being a symbol of determination or valour, over-exaggerating the importance of willpower is harmful. In truth, all change can become easier to tackle by lessening the sway of willpower in your life.

This perceived significance of willpower was researched in the 1960’s in a series of experiments that have come to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow Tests. Small children were asked to sit in a room for an indeterminate length of time ranging from around 5 – 20 minutes. The room contained a small treat such as a marshmallow. Each child was told that if they could leave the marshmallow alone they would receive 2 when the adult returned. This experiment was carried out with various children, treats and lengths of time. The children were studied while they waited and avoided, or ate, the treat that had been left for them.

The marshmallow tests became more interesting as time went on because the scientists continued to study the children throughout their lives and into adulthood. They concluded that those children who had displayed strong willpower developed into happier and more successful adults because they could avoid short term gains in preference for longer term greater benefit. This is now commonly known as delayed gratification.

These results raised more questions about willpower:

Was it possible to learn to have more willpower?

What happened when willpower is tested?

For many years, researchers became convinced that there was a link between willpower and blood sugar. They supposed that as the brain had to operate at such a high level to avoid temptation this burnt more calories, resulting in those with low glucose levels being unable to withstand their own impulses.

Other studies appeared to prove that willpower was a limited resource and that, once you had run out, you had to build more reserves.

Subsequently, further research suggested that those who believe willpower to be limited will report the feeling of “running out” and that those who believe in unlimited willpower will remain steadfast to their task. Whether this is related to their personal experience or simply belief is unclear.

Many articles and books glorify willpower, however closer reading reveals that the recommended methods used to increase yours come down to simple planning. Stay away from temptation, keep your mind focussed on the bigger goal, prepare for trigger environments, ask other people to make you accountable, own your mistakes. All of these systems are worthwhile and will all be addressed in this blog throughout 2018. To simplify them under the umbrella of willpower is to underestimate their usefulness.

While willpower seems to be of endless fascination to psychologists, most people believe they either have it or they don’t. If your desire is to make well planned, long term change none of these theories will help you as much as removing the triggers for temptation and changing your environment in the first place.

If you want to stop drinking alcohol, avoid pubs and bars and arrange to go bowling instead.

If you want to stop eating fatty foods at work, avoid the greasy spoon and bring your own lunch.

You can rely on willpower or you can rely on forethought. One will be more successful than the other. When considering willpower, think back to the story of the school detention over the pen in this blog earlier this year. Students accepted that if their pen fell out of the window they should be punished because they should have considered it an unsafe place to leave such a valuable item. The lack of foresight was their problem and they were prepared to take responsibility for their actions. That’s not willpower, it’s preparation.

Don't make a lack of willpower your excuse. Think back to the model of change which states that:

1. regardless of outside influences people don’t make change until they are personally ready,

2. people learn from each part of their change and

3. people use this knowledge to revive previously failed attempts at change or to kickstart new efforts.

Your change will come from knowledge, experience and preparation, not willpower.

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