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How to Strengthen Willpower, Part 2

Aug 14, 2008

In the first part of this article we looked at a strength model of willpower and proposed four important ideas, focusing on willpower as a mind-body response, not merely a mindset; and also how using willpower depletes resources in the body. In this second part of the series, we explore the limits of willpower, as well as how to train it in the “real world.”

The Limits of Willpower
The studies described in the last installment point to a troubling idea: willpower is inherently limited. No matter how physically fit we are, exerting ourselves inevitably leads to exhaustion. The same is true of inner strength: self-control depletes willpower in much the same way that exercise temporarily depletes physical power.

This observation comes from numerous studies over the last decade that test the limits of people’s self-control (for a research review, see Baumeister 2003). In these experiments, people who exerted their willpower on one occasion struggled to do so a second time. Studies have found this effect with all sorts of self-control tasks, including turning down tempting foods, suppressing emotions and persevering at challenging problems. The conclusion: the willpower “muscle” gets fatigued.

Taking the strength model literally, wellness pros might be curious: Do we have separate willpower “muscles” for different types of self-control? Does it take a different kind of strength to resist gossiping than it does to get up early to exercise? Or do all acts of self-control draw on the same source of strength?

According to willpower researcher Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, “Willpower is general. People may differ in how tempting they find chocolate cake or slouching, but you don’t have separate will ‘powers’ for refusing chocolate cake and for sitting up straight.” Research backs this up—the same studies that show how willpower is limited also show it doesn’t matter whether you control your temper or your craving for a cigarette—exerting willpower in one area limits your ability to do so in all others.

Because willpower is limited, each act of self-control is a win-lose effort, helping in the immediate situation but making us more likely to lose control later. Refraining from gossiping at work makes it more difficult to hit the gym after work. Resisting the impulse to splurge at your favorite store makes it more difficult to turn down dessert.

This means that it’s important to set priorities and to give ourselves a break on the things that aren’t at the top of the list. Fitness and health coach Chris Freytag, a member of the American Council on Exercise board of directors, says this strategy is especially important in the United States, where we receive the message that it’s possible to have it all and do it all. According to Freytag, this message gets in the way of real change. “It’s the whole American attitude of all or nothing. We have no middle ground. If you change everything, it’s really hard to comply—it’s too much stress in your life. You can only control so many things.” Freytag counsels people to aim for progress, not perfection.

Increasing Willpower
If willpower is like a muscle, then it should be trainable through “exercise.” According to the physiology of fitness, temporarily exhausting a muscle should lead to increased muscle size or improved ability to use fuel. Is the same true for willpower?

Researchers have put this to the test with willpower training regimes (Baumeister et al. 2006). These interventions take a simple approach: ask people to control one thing that they aren’t used to controlling, and to do it every day. Like physical exercise, this act of self-control can be uncomfortable at first, but over time it is no longer a struggle. The willpower muscle has learned a new skill, and with practice, the act of self-control is less likely to deplete willpower.

If all acts of willpower reflect a single strength, then training any individual act of self-control should strengthen all acts of self-control. Indeed, this is what research shows. Committing to small, consistent acts of willpower in any domain—from improving our posture to watching our finances—can increase overall willpower (Muraven et al. 1999; Oaten & Cheng 2007).

For example, Megan Oaten, PhD, and Ken Cheng, PhD, researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, investigated the benefits of an 8-week willpower training program that required participants to create and meet artificial deadlines (Oaten & Cheng 2006a). Participants not only improved at time management; they also ate a healthier diet, increased their physical activity levels and reduced tobacco, alcohol and caffeine use. Importantly, these health behaviors were not addressed in the intervention. The primary training effect appears to have been improved willpower endurance.

Limits and Possibilities
The idea that willpower is inherently limited is a tough idea for many people to accept. We’d rather believe that our own inner strength is limitless and that if we just try hard enough, we can kick any bad habit, stick to any diet and follow any fitness program, while simultaneously winning friends and influencing people. If everything from stress to blood sugar levels can get in the way of willpower, it’s no wonder we aren’t all self-control superheroes.

This shouldn’t be taken as bad news, and it doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to self-control failure. A strength model of willpower gives you and your clients a realistic and creative way to plan for success. Among the top lessons of the research are the following:

  • Because willpower is limited, it’s important to set reasonable goals and priorities. Conserve your willpower for what really matters.
  • Recognize that willpower is not “all in the mind,” and supply your mind-body with the fuel it needs to face life’s challenges. This fuel includes rest and a healthy diet.
  • Understand how the demands of your job, family and other relationships may interfere with your (and your clients’) ability to stick with a health or fitness program. Look for ways to reduce stress in all areas of your life to support any major life change.
  • Conserve or bypass willpower by focusing on other strengths: planning, commitment and positive motivation.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches psychology, yoga and group fitness at Stanford University. Contact her at kmcg@stanford.edu or www.openmindbody.com.

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