So it’s like almost halfway through January and your New Year’s resolutions are so busted, right? Can’t even remember what they were, eh? Something about losing weight, getting a new job, keeping the house clean, quitting smoking, gambling, drugs, drinking, whatever?
Well, consider this: maybe willpower isn’t what it’s cracked up to be (shifty eyes).
What else is there?
What the experts say
“Willpower is your ability to set a course of action and say, ‘Engage!’ This self-fuelled motivation burns out quickly, but if directed intelligently it can provide the concentrated burst you need to overcome inertia and build momentum. Don’t use willpower to attack your biggest problem directly. Instead, use it against the environmental and social obstacles that perpetuate the problem. Use it to empty your kitchen of unhealthy foods instead of trying to resist daily temptation. Use it to ask someone to become your daily exercise partner instead of trying to drag yourself to the gym every morning. Use it to kick off a new habit, not to maintain it. Habits put success on autopilot, allowing you to practically coast toward your goal.”
Steve Pavlina, founder, StevePavlina.com Personal Development for Smart People, Las Vegas
“Once you exert willpower on something, for a short period afterwards your stock is depleted and you’ll be less successful at any other act that requires willpower. The same resource is used for decision-making, so if people make a lot of decisions, their self-control will be impaired for a while afterwards. We also find it’s tied to the body’s reserve of glucose in the bloodstream, so glucose will be temporarily lowered after an act of self-control. You need to eat or get some protein to start restoring your capability. Your resource tends to be fullest in the morning and diminishes across the day. Most self-control breakdowns occur later in the day. Good habits take some of the load off willpower.”
Roy Baumeister, department of psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee
“The trap of willpower is that it turns everything into a binary black-and-white issue: you either have it or you don’t. It’s much more helpful to look at the process of change in stages. The way to move toward change is to increase the benefits of changing. It’s also important to look at harm reduction issues. That could mean if you’re not able to stop drinking, you might want to reduce it to a safer level. If you’re a heroin user, you might want to switch from intravenous use to smoking or snorting, because it reduces your risk of HIV and hepatitis. Impulsivity might be related to underlying issues like unresolved trauma. People eat, drink, smoke and use other kinds of substances as a coping strategy. If you want to make a change, let people around you know that it’s going to happen, get some support and use the resources that are around. Be gentle with yourself. Change is hard.”
Lori Naylor, registered social worker, psychotherapist, Toronto
“Willpower makes you feel terrible when you can’t do something. It’s a negative motivator, and we’re looking for positive motivation. In order to accomplish goals, you need to have tools at your disposal so you’ll be ready when something comes up. If you’re used to smoking when stressed, you have to have something ready and waiting for stressful times, like making gum available in all the places where you kept cigarettes. And do deep breathing. If you impose this willpower idea on yourself, you’re just going to feel weak. Instead, you need to say, ‘I can do something else, but I’m not going to do the original behaviour.’”
Lori Feldman, social worker, director of QuitSmart smoking cessation program, San Francisco
“Everyone has willpower, but it’s not always strong enough to make the changes we want. Some people smoke a pack a day and are dying from a heart condition. Why isn’t their willpower strong enough to make them stop when they know the dangers? Other forces interfere, such as habit. The anchor has been set that you have a cigarette with coffee. Hypnosis helps people strengthen their willpower, build new resolve and look at things differently. We have conscious and unconscious desires, and sometimes they don’t work together in harmony.”
Vinette Mohan, hypnotherapist, Toronto