15 October 2020

My friend Willpower isn’t always a good friend – and I’m not sure why! I’ve done nothing to upset my friend; Willpower comes with me everywhere (and I mean everywhere). I just can’t shake Willpower off. Willpower affects me; sometimes for the better, but often not, and then I become upset and anxious… which brings out the worst in me and my behaviour. Why would my friend do this to me, when we’ve been friends for such a long time?

Do you know what: I’m going to have a heart-to-heart, find out what kind of a friend Willpower is, and try to understand a little more about this friendly (but sometimes challenging) relationship.

So what is willpower?

It’s a word that has been bandied around in society for generations, generally with negative connotations. More recently, willpower is often discussed when we try to lose weight or give up alcohol – and it’s true that anyone with an addiction requires a large amount of willpower or self-control to kick the habit. New Year’s Resolutions are a good example; being overweight and unfit sees many of us head to the gym on January 1st, to try to correct our failings and start the year off with a health and fitness drive. For some people, this isn’t a problem. They sign up for the gym, or they get on the bike. They analyse their diet, they cut out takeaways, they eat more fruit and vegetables and they stop or reduce their alcohol consumption. On the face of it, this new health and fitness regime is pretty awesome! It seems pretty easy to exercise a few times a week and be stricter with what we put in our mouths to fuel our bodies. But guess what… it’s not as easy as it looks.

A 2018 study by Strava, a social network for athletes, looked at its 31.5 million users and their global activities. As early as January 12th, the social network site reported dramatic non-participation from its users. Another study by the Independent Newspaper in the UK identified that the 2nd week of February (6 weeks into a new health and fitness regime) was where 80% of new year’s resolutions were broken and consequently failed. Furthermore, Forbes Magazine in the US highlighted that 80% of Americans will fail or jump off the wagon within 30 days of starting a New Year’s regime and that only 8% made it through to the end of the year.

Mischel (1999) defined willpower as “a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts”. In other words, controlling your rational brain to overcome your impulsive and emotional brain. Willpower is often referred to as resolve, or self-control, which may involve a number of different cognitive and behavioural characteristics.
This may include:
  • Willpower involves putting off what you want in the short-term, to get what you want in the long-term.
  • It requires conscious effort, and often a significant investment of emotional and cognitive resources.
  • It involves resisting urges, fighting temptations, and using different strategies to maintain control.

Early research into willpower and self-control was conducted by W. Mischel (1972), a Stanford psychologist. His experiment asked children to wait to eat a marshmallow, in order to receive two marshmallows instead of just one. The experiment saw some children eat the marshmallow immediately (choosing short-term satisfaction over a longer-term reward), but some of the children were able to exert their willpower and wait for the second marshmallow. In further research, the children who were able to use their self-control and received the second marshmallow were found to have academic scores and grades higher than those children who chose to eat the marshmallow immediately.

More recent research from R. Baumeister (1998), saw participants offered chocolate cookies and radishes. The participants had to resist the urge and aroma of fresh-baked chocolate cookies (using their willpower) and eat fresh radishes from the garden instead. The participants were then asked to complete a puzzle. The participants who ate the chocolate cookies completed the puzzle in half the time it took the participants who ate the radishes. It is thought that after resisting the chocolate cookies for such a long time, the participants who ate the radishes could not find the willpower to fully engage in the puzzle.

A study in 2006 identified that maybe physical activity can boost your willpower and self-control. Oaten & Cheng gave participants free gym memberships and personalised training programs. Those participants who used their memberships and exercised frequently improved certain behaviours that required willpower. This included eating better, controlling spending habits, and reducing substance abuse.

So, it would seem that exercise is excellent for strengthening willpower! This is rather ironic when we think that the lack of willpower is a primary reason we stop exercising or going to the gym. Can exercising help us to eat less junk food, watch less television, save more money or procrastinate less? Is the simple answer and treatment of physical exercise?

If so, how much exercise do we need, and when do we need it? What type of exercise is particularly beneficial to improving willpower? They’re all relevant questions, but there is a lack of evidence to provide a conclusive insight on how we can tackle willpower with physical activity. The British Heart Foundation has suggested that as little as five minutes of regular physical activity, such as walking, is enough to make a difference to our self-control.

The key is to be prepared, like anything else in life. If you’re going to do something which may require time and thought, there’s a good chance you’ll need to plan ahead! The right footwear, clothing and drink bottle should be prepared in advance, so everything’s ready when you come to start your walk. But is this explanation too simple? Is our lack of planning in advance the main reason why so many of us use ‘lack of willpower’ as an excuse to stop doing something good, and go back to our bad habits?

When we set goals to stop smoking or lose weight, are we realistic in how we go about doing it? Does our willpower and self-control diminish in the first month of January because our goals are unrealistic? Do we need to plan in advance, and set small and achievable goals on our path to stopping smoking, getting fitter, or losing weight?

Baumeister (2007), identified that three steps were needed for willpower to succeed.
  • Setting measurable targets
  • Making them realistic, and
  • Having the willpower to follow through

Baumeister highlighted realistic goals as an important step when planning; don’t set goals that are unrealistic, or too strict. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a slip-up every now and then. For example, consider someone with no history of exercise, who wants to complete a marathon in nine months. Being realistic with an exercise and nutrition plan is definitely needed, but nine months is a very questionable goal no matter how much enthusiasm you have. If a well-thought-out plan and strategy is not developed, the marathon goal will fail, because willpower will decrease. Sure, if you have a bad day and miss a training session, then let it go and come back tomorrow with a little more effort. Likewise, allow yourself a day off from your nutrition plan – have something you probably shouldn’t – but choose to see it as a treat for training well. Don’t be too strict to begin with; have a cheat meal and enjoy it, don’t see it as a failure. Planning is the key. A day off from a scheduled training session, or an extra beer or glass of wine should be seen as part of the journey to get to your goal. Don’t beat yourself up or stress about it, if you do then your willpower may decrease.

So, now I come back to my friend, willpower.

Now I know a little more about my friend, I can understand why I become anxious or stressed when I do not complete a task or a goal. It’s clear I need my friend on a daily basis! But I ask myself questions that need to be addressed: Can I reduce the amount of time I spend on social media? Can I say no to a half-pounder when a healthier option is available? Can I get back on the bandwagon when I have repeated failures starting an exercise program? The answer is yes! If I were to continually say no to a half-pounder or limit my surfing of the net to 5 minutes a day, this could increase my stress or anxiety. The key, in my eyes, is to plan and to plan well when you want to lose weight or get fitter. If I want to reduce my alcohol consumption, then put a well-organised plan in place. Be realistic: it’s highly unlikely you can stop drinking alcohol completely from Day One, but instead you can realistically reduce your consumption weekly or bi-weekly. Our human behaviour has a nasty little trait called habit, and for many of us, stopping something with immediate effect can lead to stress in our lives. That is when your friend taps you on the shoulder and starts to be too negative once again.

No one wants a friend like that! Don’t be afraid to fail, start again and be strong.
  • Baumeister R, Vols, K.D & Tice, D. M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351-355.
  • Mischel W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay gratification dynamics of willpower. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 21 (2), 204-218.
  • Mischel W. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.
  • Oaten B & Cheng G. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717-733.
  • Forbes Magazine (January 2020). Why discipline and self-control are the true path to success - Brent Gleeson.
  • Strava. (2018). Estimating bicycle trip volume from Miami – Dade county from Strava tracking data. Journal of Transport Geography, volume 75, February 2019, 58-69.
  • Independent Newspaper (United Kingdom). (December 2019). What have I learnt from my failed new years resolutions - Niellah Arboine. 
  • Heart Matters - Increase Your Willpower and Self-Control - British Heart Foundation.
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