Saturday, May 26, 2012

Practical strategies from The Willpower Instinct

This is a supplement to my earlier review of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. I thought I would share a few key insights I've learned from the book.  My husband is probably tired of hearing my "willpower wisdom" by now, so I mostly want somewhere else to collect my thoughts and share them.

The author does not use this terminology, but I am going to share a few "Willpower Heroes" and "Willpower Zeroes," things that either boost or sap willpower.  I found these really interesting and I have started noticing their influence in my own life. The biggest overall instinct is to stop thinking of willpower as something we either have or don't have.  Thinking of willpower as a muscle, a key metaphor in the book, that can be trained but also tired out, is really helpful.  If we evolved in an calorie-scarce environment, it's not surprising that we are drawn to high-calorie foods when our energy is low.

If you like these strategies, I do recommend the book, which is designed as a program to help you build your willpower over time.  Trying to implement all of these at once could be overwhelming. There are a

Willpower Heroes:

  • Sleep: Exercising willpower is an energy-intensive activity. When the brain is tired, it willonserve energy by turning off our ability to resist temptation in the hopes that we will stop being polite and fight our way to the available food. Though sugar can provide a short-term boost, it is ultimately a bad strategy as the resulting blood glucose crash will put us further in the energy hole.
  • Meditation, slow breathing, and relaxation: These are all treated separately in the book, but they seem to go together to me.  Slowing down the breath activates our willpower system.  Meditating is both relaxing and an exercise in self-control.  Relaxation recharges our energy.  The hitch (you knew there was one) is that activities like television and web surfing don't count as relaxation.
  • Exercise: Though like most people, I feel less inclined to exercise when I am tired, exercise can increase both energy and willpower in the long term, for lots of reasons. The most scientific one is that exercise builds "heart-rate variability," a key factor in willpower (read the book for the explanation).  The good news (for those of us feeling tired or lazy, anyway) is that short-term bursts of exercise are enough to increase willpower. Just five minutes of exercising outdoors can make a difference. 
  • A healthy diet: Not surprisingly, eating foods that maintain constant energy throughout the day are more helpful to willpower than a steady diet of blood-sugar-crashing sweets. 
  • Thinking of ourselves as committed to your goals and able to achieve them:  This is why negative self-talk is so destructive.  It actually lets us off the hook and sends us right into the arms of our favorite vice.
Willpower Zeroes:
  • Turning willpower struggles into a battle of good vs. evil: Because we like to think of ourselves as good people, we will start to justify the behavior that goes against our goals as "not that bad." It's more helpful to think of behaviors as supportive or not supportive of our long-range goals and take the moral language out of it. It also makes it easier to turn a little progress into an excuse to indulge because we've been so "good."
  • Feeling bad about ourselves: The more we punish ourselves for our slipups, the more we will think "What the he**" and decide we might as well wait for a "good day" to exercise willpower.  Despite what most people think, shame is a terrible motivator. If we think of ourselves as bad, we're less likely to act in our own self-interest.
  • Stress: Stress keeps our body and brain at high alert and weakens willpower.
  • Giving in too easily: Willpower can be trained. If we start working on saying no to or at least delaying our impulses, we will find it easier to overcome those impulses in the future.
  • Controlling everything: Willpower gets tired, so always saying "no" can exhaust our resources to say no when it really counts. 
It has been interesting for me to think of some of our blogworld debates in terms of willpower theory.  I think many of us have intuited at least some of these strategies. However, I often see people whose lives seem very busy and stressful getting angry with themselves for their small willpower slips. I think that understanding when we are most likely to have problems allows us to recruit extra support for challenging times. 

I know that I have, in the past, fallen victim to the "flip the switch" metaphor and thought that once I conquered a willpower challenge, it would stay conquered. Anyone who has regained lost weight or started smoking again after 7 years without a cigarette knows that just isn't true.  It's unrealistic to think we will never be tempted again just because resolving to change feels powerful.  However, it's more realistic to expect that we will always have some trouble with willpower challenges (especially food, which is universally tempting because of our biology) and do as much as we can to create an environment that is supportive of our goals.  Knowing more about how willpower works is really helping me know how I can set myself up for success.

1 comment:

  1. After an initial resistance to the word "willpower" I am finding this whole concept interesting...especially the part about the "flip the switch" metaphor. It really does come down to understanding that this isn't an "all or nothing" proposition.

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07