My point is that it’s a fallacy to misunderstand that nature has endowed some with more willpower than others, and by virtue of their willpower (or Grit, Tenacity, Heart or anything you might call it), they succeed in life because of it. Those who withstood temptation and worked harder showed innately more strength of character and therefore more Willpower. We tend to give credit or take blame for the mystifying attribute of Willpower, when we fall to temptation or get into bad habits and fail to make a change in life, and when we suceed, we credit this as “willpower” (ohmmmm).
But what exactly is willpower ? We heard of it, we admire it, but we dont really know what it is or how quantify or measure it in people. Like how we can resist temptations of one kind but not another (We can have great willpower in resisting ice cream but fall prey to chocolates), so does that mean we have greater willpower or lesser willpower overall ?
Five decades ago, a psychologist (who became legendary due to his findings) demonstrated that kids (who loved marshmallows alot) who could sit down with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it for a full fifteen minutes (and were rewarded with another few marshmallows) did better in almost every area of life than the more impulsive kids who ate the marshmallow in the blink of an eye right away – in spite of the fact that they were all instructed to wait. As Walter followed his test subjects for the next 20 years, he learnt that children who learned how to delay gratification (and exercise willpower) scored better in school , earned more, were promoted more, had better relationships and were happier. This showed that the ability to delay gratification (willpower) is a big deal.
So what conclusion can you come up with the study? Definitely that marshmallow-munchers who showed willpower succeeded more and they were endowed with the magic dust that allows them to be great, that’s all. (Of course not !). But it does seem to point to the conclusion that some people are innately stronger (You can’t blame your mum for that).
But it isn’t so. Another study tried to replicate this. This time it had more variables, and the test was held in a similar way, this time it had more a couple of skills they learnt (from distraction techniques, to having positive peer influence). And the end result was that all of the kids were able to resist eating the choclate for 15 minutes. “Willpower” as i said was not a mystifying attribute, its a mix of motivation as well as technique. Its learnable and with the right approach we can apply the same principles to anything in life, we just have to identify the drivers. And heres a summary of whats useful we could all take away.
Personal Motivation – That’s a no brainer, if you can connect with your goal at crucial moments (when you really want to eat the marshmallow, you think of few which you can get later). You will tend to put things in focus and do the right thing. The thing is crucial moments, and that this has to be a strong motivation, and not just a “you should not eat the marshmallow, try not to eat ok ?”. Same thing with your workout goals, if you can imagine how you would feel in front of an aspirator thinking you have 5 days to live, you would jog and throw away that cigarette. If you can imagine how a loved one saw your pasty white whale of a body and retched, you would also probably realize that you do need to exercise (like now!). These motivations don’t hit out at you all the time, but you do need something to battle the crucial moments when you just want to snooze and sit back in front of the TV with a nice cool drink. The keywords (lets revise… ) are “crucial” moments and “powerful” motivations.
Verdict : Our junior sweet eaters were able to ward off temptation more easily by reminding themselves of things they could do until the fifteen minutes are up. With a magazine or a toy, they could easily distract themselves. While others were taught to draw in their mind the fulfilment of eating more marshmallows instead of one every time they get a twinge. As a result 100% of the kids were able to ward off eating the marshmallows. Its not a display of willpower but a refining of thought processes, our mind thinks short term so in a sense we have to bring the long term goal closer to us by keeping it in sight, or we could find a distraction that would allow us to avoid the crucial moments of temptation. Temptation isn’t an endless barrage of waves, but rather a single a quickly occurring feeling, so once we develop a plan to negate that feeling, we obtain mastery over the temptation over that crucial moment. (That is the power therein) to submit temptation with a good game-plan at the right moment when it strikes.
Social Motivation Its cliché, bird of a feather flock together, but do you also know that if you want to be of a certain feather you should also flock with birds whose feathers you want (Mind boggling). But yup, social motivation is what drives alot of our actions, ever heard of the proverb, the apple never falls far from the apple tree? To a certain extent, the people we are with and the people around us show us what’s possible. In psychology its what’s called social proof, when we are faced with uncertain environments or situations, it’s common to do what the people around us do.
It may not be as blatant as outright copying but we are subconsciously affected by what’s possible. If we mix around with people who overeat and idea of an active weekend is out at buffets, it’s that circle that defines our preferences, likewise when we decide to change, the become the weights that tie us down. Imagine being part of a club of overeaters and sit at the TV watching re-runs kind guys, then you decide to go for a jog every day. They would then say “Why do it? It’s hard to lose that amount of weight, be happy with your own body, just look at us, we are happy with who we are. aren’t you. Are you saying that we shouldn’t be comfortable in our own skin ? Come on have a bag of chips and throw away those jogging shoes, they look ridiculous on you.”
This is also known as resistance. All change is met with resistance, the people that we are with might have the best interest for us, and they don’t want us to get disappointed or do something very different from them so that you are out of the group. Likewise, if we find that we need change, we need to turn accomplices into friends, changing deeply entrenched habits required help, information and real support from others.
Verdict : The study shown that if the kids were together with another kid who dint flinch and grab at the marshmallow straight away, the kids had a much higher chance of resisting the immediate satisfaction of munching the marshmallow in the first available instance. Changing deeply entrenched habits require help, information and real support from others (for those who believe in toughing it out, many psychology journals time and time again state that peer pressure has much stronger impact than we think, sorry lone rangers). Fail to make it to the gym , make an appointment with a trainer or friend. Its important to use social support, its not being dependent, its being smart because collectively we have more resources and more ways to motivate than in isolation, besides ,no man is a mountain. So gang up against your problems, rightfully you need leverage against something as sinister as temptation and what better ways than having a solid support group.
One more, in Willpower Part III
- Muhammad Saleem: Willpower Part III: How to Strengthen Your Willpower and 20 Ways to Conserve It (artofmanliness.com)
- Why Leaders Have More Willpower, and More Willpower Failures (psychologytoday.com)
- Willpower (recruitinganimal.typepad.com)
- You: Willpower Part I: The Force of Greatness (artofmanliness.com)