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Mind Body and Soul: Where There’s a Will…A New Path to Self-Control

By Michelle Vessel

You know the drill: it’s the first Monday in January, and you start out strong in your quest to lose weight, quit smoking or live more frugally. Tuesday and Wednesday are tough, but you hang in there. On Thursday, your day is derailed by an unexpected stress bomb that detonates in your face, but you stick to your guns. After an exhausting Friday, you find yourself daydreaming about the very vice you’re trying to swear off. By Saturday night, you’ve convinced yourself that just one won’t hurt, whether that “just one” happens to be a cupcake, cigarette or shopping trip.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, it’s hard to follow through on making lasting changes to our lives. We find ourselves setting personal goals, only to feel our resolve slowly slipping away until we reach the point of no return. Those New Year’s resolutions just don’t seem to last too far into the new year. According to a 2007 study conducted at the University of Bristol, 88% of all New Year’s resolutions peter out within a few months, which may be why that brand new elliptical you picked up to shed those extra holiday pounds ends up in the attic by Easter time.

While you may not be shocked to hear that many self-improvement efforts don’t quite make the grade, you may be surprised to learn that recent research has uncovered interesting insights about this phenomenon. The problem may not be that we’re all weak-willed hedonists unable to resist temptation, but rather that our traditional concept of willpower may be somewhat misguided.

Inborn Trait or Learned Skill?

For those of us who have spent time around friends who are struggling to stick to a diet or fitness regimen, a classic refrain tends to repeat itself: “I have absolutely no willpower!” This may seem like a harmless expression of frustration, but in truth, it reveals a deep-seated confusion that runs rampart in our culture: the inability to give a clear and precise definition to the idea of willpower.

According to the way we often talk about it, willpower is seen as an innate gift that a lucky few are blessed with. In this view, the rest of us lazy slobs are simply missing the willpower gene, so any attempt we make to change our habits is doomed to failure. You either have it or you don’t. But based on the latest findings, the “all-or-nothing” conception of willpower misses the mark. While it’s true that some people seem born with higher levels of resilience, grit, and self-control than others, some researchers say that all of us have the ability to increase our willpower supply.

Research and Results

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, has said that willpower is a limited resource, much like physical stamina. We all possess it, but our ability to access and utilize it depends on our conditioning level. In experiments conducted by Dr. Baumeister and other researchers, results have shown that willpower can be built up and become stronger over time, but it can also be depleted by being overly taxed or called upon too often.

One such experiment conducted by Baumeister and his team seated participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and held several displays of cookies and candy. Some participants were offered the tasty treats while others were asked to snack on radishes instead. Both groups were then asked to complete a tricky puzzle requiring persistence and concentration. Those in the radish-eating group, who had already been asked to resist the cookies through willpower, tended to give up sooner and perform worse than the chocolate eaters.

Studies such as these seem to give credence to the notion that willpower operates much like a gas tank; it can be drawn upon for fuel, but the supply is limited. Perhaps the best way to think about willpower is to liken it to physical stamina. If your ultimate goal is to run a marathon, but your current lifestyle is closer to couch potato than gold medalist, you wouldn’t go out and try to run all 26 miles in your first training session. Likewise, when you want to take on a task that will require high levels of willpower, be sure to start slowly and build your reserves over time.

Strength of Will

The latest research on willpower suggests that it is a skill that can be developed with conscientious effort. Some people also liken it to a muscle that you can build up through “exercise” and thus increase your reserves of self-control thanks to several practical methods.

Training Day

If you don’t have much experience exerting strong self-control, experts suggest training yourself by selecting a small, doable goal and sticking to it for a few weeks. For example, commit to making your bed every morning, flossing before bed each night or having only one cup of coffee per day. When you achieve success with these kinds of smaller goals, you strengthen your willpower muscle and build confidence to take on more intimidating challenges in the future.

Rules of the Game

Experts like to preach moderation, but willpower researchers say that having a very specific mental rule or set of rules is more helpful when you’re trying to develop healthier habits for daily living. As an example, you could set boundaries that allow yourself nine M&Ms per day or two glasses of wine each Friday night. General platitudes such as “I will eat healthier foods” will probably not lead to as much success as more specific rules such as “I will not eat French fries.”

Find Your Pace

As proven by the diabolical radishes-or-cookies experiment, it’s possible to deplete your stores of willpower, particularly when you’re just getting started with the process of trying to build up more self control. Don’t take on too many goals at once that will require self denial. Going cold turkey and trying to drop all your bad habits at once may be too much to handle and will likely see a lower success rate. Focus on one vice at a time to help keep your willpower reserves full.

Plan Ahead

No matter how strong your willpower, it’s helpful to have a contingency plan, especially if you’re going to be in an environment rife with temptations. Imagine yourself being placed into a tempting situation and come up with strategies to stick to your goals, such as opting for veggie crudités instead of fatty foods or sticking with virgin drinks instead of high octane cocktails.

Keep Your Focus

Another important finding to come out of Roy Baumeister’s willpower research is that we’re better able to stick to our goals when we’re running on all cylinders. When we’re tired, hungry, grumpy or otherwise out of sorts, we may find it harder to exert self control. Baumeister suggests creating conditions for success by minimizing negative situations that could cause you to lose focus. Make things like getting enough sleep and having healthy snacks available a top priority.

Even for those among us who are convinced that they don’t possess a single iota of strong willpower, the latest research suggests that we can transform ourselves from quick-to-cave pushovers to steel-spined masters of self-control by gradually strengthening and building up our willpower muscles. It may take some time, but the payoff can be huge once we find ourselves gaining the confidence and determination necessary to achieve our wildest dreams.



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