Willpower is Not Enough

man using his willpower to decide what to eat

Have you noticed that you want to make a change in your life but find it so difficult? Maybe you want to lose weight, cut back on sugar, exercise more, stop smoking, start doing yoga, get to bed earlier, stop yelling at your kids, keep a cleaner house, whatever.

You’ve struggled with it for months or even years, maybe even starting and stopping, feeling bad about it, then starting and stopping again. In spite of your best intentions, you can’t seem to stick with it. You get busy, or stressed, or tired, or distracted and, before long, you’re looking at your commitment in the rear view mirror.

For example, have you ever binged on cookies after a stressful day, knowing that you did not want to do so? (Haven’t we all?) Two parts of your brain have been pitted against each other-the primal (primitive) brain and the prefrontal cortex.

The primal brain seeks immediate gratification by finding pleasure and avoiding pain. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that can think and reason and see long-term consequences. We make a decision to change from our prefrontal cortex and then fight the urges of the primal brain in our moment by moment decision-making throughout the day.

It becomes almost impossible to ignore the urges of the primal brain when you become upset, hungry, tired, stressed, or bored. Willpower is trying to deny, resist, or ignore these impulses. It is like trying to hold a beach ball under water—impossible. You can do it so long, but sooner or later they’re going to surface and overwhelm your ability to resist.

Therefore, willpower, alone, is a flawed strategy for sustaining change. People who adopt new habits rely on other, more nuanced strategies, that reduce (not eliminate) the influence of your primal brain. I want to share a few of these with you in this article.

Learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I’m calling the “middle way.” This is coming up with an emotionally mature response to a challenge rather than either ignoring or dramatizing it. One way I’m learning to do this is by tolerating uncomfortable feelings. The middle way is not ignoring uncomfortable feelings. It is allowing them without acting on them. I notice my hunger and urge to have a cookie. However, rather than suppressing the urge, I sit with it and simply observe it. Inevitably, after five to ten minutes, the urge will pass.

Or, I want to exercise and so build a plan that includes 45 minutes at a gym on my way home from work each evening. I approach the gym and notice that I don’t want to go in. I start to rationalize. “It’s been a long day.” “I am especially tired tonight.” “I’ll spend extra time tomorrow.” My primal brain is seeking to avoid pain. Rather than act on it, I sit with the feeling for a few minutes, not trying to psyche myself up nor override my sense of tiredness. Just being with it. The feelings will pass and I’m in a better place to do my workout.

Or my kids have made a mess all over the floor. My inclination is to vent my frustration by yelling at them. But another part of me knows that this won’t solve the problem, nor teach them anything meaningful. So, I close my eyes and take a few minutes to be fully conscious of my anger, where I feel it in my body, what it feels like, including its color, size and shape. By staying with my feelings and urge to yell, I’m able to choose a better, more helpful response.

Nutrition researchers at the University of Minnesota found that anger, sadness, and anxiety will lift whether people ate their favorite comfort foods, ate a more neutral food like a granola bar, or ate nothing at all. In other words, just sitting with their feelings made them feel as good as eating a cookie, with no regrets, afterwards.

Learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions is an extremely effective way of allowing your prefrontal cortex to gain the upper hand over the urges of your primal brain.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

A social psychologist, Emily Dalcetis, at New York University has conducted studies in which participants raced a short distance to a finish line. Some participants were told to focus their attention on the finish line, to avoid looking around, to imagine a spotlight was shining on that goal, and that everything else around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. The control group was instructed to look around at the environment as they normally would.

The experimental group, those who kept their eyes on the prize, saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than the control group. Their self-reports also indicated that they perceived that they gave the task 17 percent less effort than those from the support group. Keeping their eyes on the finish line not only changed their subjective experience but their objective experience as well. They actually moved 23 percent faster than those who did not focus on the finish line.

A conclusion of Dr. Dalcetis and her colleagues was that the strategy can be used to achieve any reasonable goal. By narrowing your focus on the goal and ignoring other cues, you are much more likely to achieve the goal. If you set a goal to exercise, you create an image of yourself exercising and ignore other cues. If you want to lose weight, you visualize yourself at your ideal weight. Keep your focus on all the rewards you’ll get by living your new habit and remind yourself of the rip offs (negative consequences) from failing to do so. The more you see the prize, the more you are drawn to it and less you’re influenced by distractions (urges).

Visualize your future self

We don’t need research to know that we’re more influenced by short term rewards than long-term rewards. The cheesecake now seems a lot more attractive than a healthy heart some months in the future. This is due to the power of urges that originate in the primal brain as well as fact that we are not accustomed to thinking about the future. But research shows that if you imagine your future self, you’ll find it easier to ignore urges and be more motivated to adopt healthy behaviors.

So, think about your ideal self, several years in the future. It could be 10 years or from now or even when you’re an older person in your 70s or 80s. Where are you? What’s happening in your life? What activities are you engaged in? What lifestyle are you living? How healthy are you? Imagine what it will be like to be this person.

Suppose your future self were to write a letter to your current self. What would he/she say to you today? What council would this future self offer? What thanks might he/she give for the habits you are developing today which are contributing to his/her life in the future?

Not only can you connect with your future self in the distant future but even in the short-term future. Suppose you’re tempted to sleep in rather than get up and exercise. Now imagine your future self at the end of the day. How will he/she feel, what would he/she say if you made the choice to exercise? Or choice to keep your cool when you want to yell at your kids?

Taking time to connect with your future self, in these ways, shifts your perspective so you understand the long-term consequences of decisions today. It is a way to give the decision-making power of the prefrontal cortex leverage over your primal brain.

Reframe your thoughts

Changing how you talk to yourself, even in simple ways, also helps you change your habits. For example, research shows that if you say “I get to eat vegetables” instead of “I have to eat vegetables,” you will find it easier to eat a healthy diet.

Hedy Kober, Ph.D. and an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Yale University School of Medicine did a study in which they taught their subjects to tell themselves that broccoli was crunchy and delicious and that if they ate it, they would feel good about themselves. Kober stated that the results of this training were amazing. “We found that we can actually get people to increase their cravings for healthy food,” she reported.

In another study, she and her team trained other people to practice talking about the wonderful qualities of healthy foods. Consequently, they made better choices and ate fewer calories in everyday life.

It also works the other way. Studies have shown that people can reduce their longings for donuts by thinking of all the negatives about them—how they fill your vessels with triglycerides, raise your blood sugar which destroys your organs and leaves you with less energy. Brain scans of people who underwent this training revealed that people who talked to themselves in this way had lower neuro-activity in their primitive brains and greater activity in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with cognitive control.

These practices apply not only to weight loss and healthy eating but other habits as well. The more you talk about all the benefits of a new habit the easier it will be to incorporate that habit into your daily life.

Conclusion

The problem with trying to change using willpower alone is that every choice becomes a struggle between your prefrontal cortex and the powerful urges of the primal brain. Eventually the urges seem to win out which not only erodes your sense of self-control but leaves you feeling ashamed for every time you mess up.

The strategies that I’ve mentioned help take away the power of your primal impulses. Although the feelings and urges will still be there, you will have found ways to override their power by connecting with your more thoughtful, prefrontal cortex.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “Willpower is Not Enough”

  1. Marta Gallagher says:

    It is very important that we think positive, because there are many circumstances where we need it to be, that helps us to confront things in a different way. I am a person who always thinks negative and I need a lot of help to change my way of thinking, I am progressing very slowly, but reading your articles it has helped me. Thank you for what you do…

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Marta. It is so easy to slip into negative thinking. I’m glad to hear you’re progressing. The key is teaching ourselves to be more conscious and aware so we can make good choices.

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