Why You Need to Make Willpower Your New Best Friend

This is the third post in a series of four establishing the core foundation of breaking any bad habits that are having a negative impact on your life. With this foundation, you will no longer be inhibited by these actions that are preventing you from being your best self.

How did your week of observation go? Did you discover some facts about your bad habit that make you motivated to quit it altogether?

Reflecting back on one of my personal examples (getting angry at trivial things), my biggest take away is how unhappy I am when I’m angry. Pretty “duh,” right? But, the more I’m mindful of that reality, the more I can say to myself, “let’s stop doing that. It’s a complete waste of our mental energy.”

So, let’s stop it. You, me, and the little voices in our heads are going to team up and break away from these nasty little buggers once and for all. It’s time to live into new possibilities.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
By Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney

Why your willpower will win the day

At the core of making this change permanent is the belief you bring to the table about the concept of willpower.

For some time, scientists believed willpower was an innate characteristic that some people had and others didn’t. It was as simple as that. 

Additionally, for those that had “it,” willpower was a resource that was limited. So, your willpower might be high in the morning, but the more mental energy you spend throughout the day, the less likely that willpower will be there for you at night. Think about how logical this sounds the next time you break your “good” behavior and opt for an unhealthy midnight snack. During these moments, facts mean little to nothing:

"Facts are weak motivators. For example, knowing that your daily butter and bagel is increasing your heart-disease risk by 17 percent likely won’t get you to give it up. To change, you also need the support of your heart and soul. Only when your desire to end a habit is deep and strong will you have the drive and willpower to succeed. So seek deeper, more emotional reasons to make the change. Ponder the future you want, and the joys that await you. Let them motivate you to act."

Thankfully, researchers have made paradigm shifting breakthroughs in this psychological phenomenon, and have new information to share:

“Much recent research suggests that willpower—the capacity to exert self-control—is a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. We propose that whether depletion takes place or not depends on a person’s belief about whether willpower is a limited resource...People who viewed the capacity for self-control as not limited did not show diminished self-control after a depleting experience...Taken together, the findings suggest that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.”

To put this in a context many people can relate to, including myself, another group of researchers decided to test people’s beliefs about willpower and the correlated “effects” sugar (glucose) had on their perception of self-control. In other words, if people believed willpower was a limiting resource did they think it could be replenished by consuming sugary things?

This research shows that a seemingly basic physiological process, the effect of glucose ingestion on self-control, depends on cultural beliefs about the nature of willpower.

Replicating past research, we found that glucose ingestion can improve self-control and cognitive performance following the exertion of self-control. However, this effect occurred only when people endorsed the theory that willpower relies on a limited resource or had been led to endorse this belief experimentally.

When people believed instead that willpower is not limited or when they had been led to endorse this belief, they did not need glucose to sustain high levels of self-control performance. A non-limited theory of willpower liberates people from the need for constant glucose boosts to exert self-control successfully.

Put the other way around, the performance enhancing effect of glucose arises in part because people behave in the context of a cultural belief that willpower is limited and readily depleted.”

Isn’t that incredible? If you subscribe to the belief that willpower is an unlimited resource, you don’t need that candy bar or cup of coffee at 2:30pm to sustain high levels of willpower and productivity. You’ve already convinced yourself willpower is never ending, and you’ve won the game of psychology.

The idea of willpower is so fantastically in your control, it’s going to be the biggest tool in your toolbox as you go about obliterating your bad habits.

Changing your beliefs demands hard work

Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight. You’ll have to engage in a very mindful practice to convince your habit center that your willpower isn’t going anywhere.

This is particularly the case when your habit fits in with today’s cultural norms:

Research suggests that one of the main reasons we persist with bad habits is that so many other people have them too; they are cultural norms. That makes sense: It’s hard to say no to fast-food burgers, French fries, and soda when everyone around you is eating them.

But they are bad for you. The message: Pay no attention to social norms. You are not defined by them. Do what’s right for you, rather than worrying about fitting in. Chances are, others will respect you for your choices not shun you.

An even better strategy: Spend less time with people who have bad habits and more time with people who have the good habits you want to develop.

That last sentence will be a tough one to swallow. Let’s say you have a close group of friends who go out drinking every weekend to let off steam from the weekly chaos of life. But, you know this habit is draining your bank account today (paying bar tabs) and could also do so in the future (possible health issues).

In this instance, you don’t have to forgo the evening of fun altogether, but if you opt for water instead of your usual Blue Moon, your friends might pressure you into drinking with them. If that’s the case, and they are unreasonably upset with you, you have a new decision to make. But, 9 times out of 10, this won’t be an issue.

Bring your willpower with you everywhere

When you make the conscious decision to wake up each day knowing full and well your willpower knows no bounds, you will experience a brand new sense of self-control. Your moments of weakness will be aided by this new mindset, allowing you to crank up the willpower and battle through without breaking stride.

The month is winding down and you have added an immense amount of knowledge to breaking bad habits of all shapes and sizes. With one more post to go, you’ll have an abundance of strategies at your disposal to knock any bad habit out of the ballpark. The only question is, will you implement them? Your willpower says, “yes!”

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