Not Willpower: Willplanning

To anyone who grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even ‘90s, it was pretty much impossible to miss the phenomenon that was Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallones’s iconic underdog southpaw from Philadelphia who battled his way to the heavyweight title through pure grit and determination. In movie sequel after sequel the formula was the same: beaten down, washed out, ready to give up, Rocky somehow kept going. The anthem began, and Rocky trained. He trained harder and longer than anyone had trained before. The music swelled to a crescendo. The champ raised his hands in the air, and our hearts soared. Then he entered the fight, and he won.

There’s something almost reverent about the way our culture worships willpower. Whether we’re driving for a bigger bottom line or a smaller waistline, it’s a common assumption that if you genuinely want to achieve something, you have to be willing to work for it, sacrifice things, and put in a lot of effort. “No pain, no gain!” is the typical trope.

In all of those films, of course, Rocky’s true nemesis was never his opponent; it was the temptation to quit, to take the easy way out. Just as powerful as our belief in the value of willpower is the idea that if you succumb to any temptations on your way to achieving your goal, then you have “failed” or you have a “weakness,” and the only thing that can fix it is more willpower.

Over the past 30 years, publications on psychology research reinforced this idea that willpower is a cognitive muscle that we can build and train—our own little mental Rocky—the theory being that our ability to exhibit self-control is a function of our prefrontal cortex, which controls our executive functions.

Countless researchers soon surmised that one’s ability to maintain this control ought to be dependent on the brain’s fuel, blood sugar, and that merely adding more glucose into one’s bloodstream could “replenish” willpower. However, as the methods for study design and subject questionnaires have improved, some more systematic studies are revealing that biology is not the sole influencer, nor is it even the strongest one.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that of the 205 people who most agreed with survey questions like “I am good at resisting temptations” also reported fewer temptations throughout the study period, while those who did not feel adept at resisting temptations reported being confronted with them often. Put another way, people who self-identified as being excellent at self-control hardly used it at all. 

Now, it might be easy to assume that the people who experienced fewer temptations were merely less goal-oriented. However in a similar study, the participants who experienced fewer temptations overall were generally more successful, indicating that exerting more self-control does not correlate to accomplishing our goals.

Then there is the comprehensive review from the University of Pennsylvania, which analyzed the mental frameworks the mind needs to implement effective self-control strategies. Researchers observed that while, in some cases it’s more effective to change how we think about the situation so that exercising restraint becomes more appealing or more comfortable to accomplish, often the best self-control strategy involves us changing the situation to avoid needing to use willpower entirely.

Almost everyone struggles to act in their individual and collective best interests. No human is exempt from the short-term desires of the “present self,” and the long-term goals of the “future self.” Thankfully, the remedy to improving our willpower isn’t to exercise it more frequently like you’re at the gym, but rather to use it more efficiently and sparingly. The secret is to set yourself up to win, so that you rarely need to “power” through temptations at all.

These insights reveal that the necessity to use willpower is actually a symptom of two fundamental challenges at a deeper level. Either, we don’t know what we want and are therefore internally conflicted, or we do know what we want, but we haven’t yet committed to achieving that thing and creating the conditions that support and can facilitate that commitment.

Take someone who is generally successful at losing weight, but has a wedding to attend, where temptations to cheat will abound. Digging a little deeper into their desire to indulge in the wedding’s food, desserts, and alcohol, their underlying motivation might turn out to have nothing to do with food. Such introspection could uncover that their real desire is to feel apart of the festivities and in rapport with their fellow guests by feasting.

With this added clarity, this wedding guest might recognize that they can “feel a part” of the festivities in other ways beyond food. They could plan to dance with their fellow guests, take the time to talk with as many people as possible, volunteer to help set up, or take photos and videos of the event and create a memorable digital item for the bride and groom. To further set themselves up for success at the wedding, they can plan to eat a healthy meal before the event and empower their companion with authority to call them out if they feel tempted by the desserts.

Setting yourself up for success against temptations that might stand in your way takes forethought and planning. Here are some tips to get you started: 

Be Sure Your Goal is Really Yours: Research from the University at Albany found that people who felt compelled by some outside source to exert self-control felt more easily depleted by the effort of exercising restraint, compared to people who were driven by their own internal goals and desires. Not surprisingly, people whose choices came from their personal internal motivation therefore had an easier time sticking to their new behavior patterns. They wanted something, and they committed to attaining it.

Have Clear Intentions: Vague intentions like “I’ll try to hit the gym three times this week” are riddled with loopholes. As a wise Jedi once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Statistically, you are more likely to stick on your path if you understand clearly what your goal is and why you want to accomplish it. It may take some introspection to uncover any conflicting desires you might have and line them up in the same direction, however once you do, you’ll be an unstoppable force.

Design Your Environment: Like it or not, our environment and the people in it can drive our behavior when we are living on autopilot. The simplest way to avoid temptation is to identify where it commonly occurs and redesign your surroundings to cut those situations out of your life. As an example, if you are not eating sweets, make sure your house is devoid of them. If you are trying to quit smoking, make an effort to hang out with friends who do not smoke. If you are working on writing a book, schedule time for writing and defend that time against activities that could tempt you to schedule something else in the slot.

Surround Yourself With Supporters: The people we surround ourselves with can have a surprisingly significant impact on our behavior. This is because, subconsciously, we seek to be in rapport with those we feel affection for, and will adjust our behavior to fit in with the group. When we are striving for a new goal, sometimes this means we need to dial back exposure to some people in our lives to avoid temptations and dial-up interactions with people who support us. Additionally, people you “think” might not be supportive can still be in your corner, if you talk with them about what you’re looking to achieve. These people might be your strongest allies when temptation presents itself.

Celebrate Even Your Smallest Wins: The brain is wired to remember negative experiences, so we can more easily avoid them in the future. It’s easy, therefore, for our minds to fill with all the ways we have failed. However, celebrating your progress can also play into your mind’s natural reward centers. As you plan your life to avoid temptations, remember to celebrate the little wins as they come along. Each time you reward yourself for making progress, no matter how small, your brain will release chemicals which can be just as addictive as the thing we are trying to avoid.

When we understand that our inability to successfully stay on track with our goals is not a result of insufficient willpower, we no longer need to feel guilty about falling off track. It’s not a moral failing within us that caused us to succumb to temptation; it’s just that we didn’t take the time to gain clarity on the motivations behind our goals, and plan ahead to remove temptation from our experience. When self-control is needed, it only indicates a lack of planning ahead to remove temptations before they strike.

This week, consider a goal you sincerely want, where you often find yourself distracted by temptation. Ask yourself, if you have any conflicting desires around this goal. If you are clear on what you want, move on to evaluate what your commitment level is and what it might take to bring it to an ironclad level. Finally, reflect on the patterns of temptation you experience, and orchestrate your world to remove, or avoid as many of those situations as possible. With this new information, outline for yourself at least three strategies that could employ instead of willpower to maintain your momentum without exerting as much energy as the self-control requires.

“Willpower is for people who are still uncertain about what they want to do.” – Helia

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