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Easy New Year’s Resolutions, Part 3: Resolve Against Willpower

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by Ryan Anderson

on 03 January, 2015

In our Easy New Years’ Resolution series we’ve invited you to rest and focus. To finish up we’d like to take a step back. Call it a meta-resolution, if you will.

Resolve Against Willpower

Well, ok: I really mean we should resolve to support our willpower — which means finding other options to constantly putting it to use.

We all have a list of ways we want to improve. Notoriously, almost all of us fail to accomplish them. And yet we continue to think that this time, if we’re only a little bit harder on ourselves, if we are a little bit more disciplined, then we’ll learn Italian, become a yogi, get out of debt, give up smoking, and never waste time scrolling through Facebook.

When we inevitably fall back into our bad habits, we’re certain we know what’s to blame. The comprehensive Stress in America survey asked Americans what stopped them from doing the things they knew would improve their lives and reduce their stress. As in previous annual surveys, Americans blamed their weak willpower more than any other cause.

This would make sense if Willpower were a magic internal organ that, when not dysfunctional, constantly controlled all cravings and injected us with energy to achieve every goal. Of course, willpower isn’t that. But then, what exactly is it?

Willpower is a limited resource

For one thing: Willpower might be a limited resource. A large body of research suggests that when you overuse your willpower, it will give up on you. When you are using your willpower all day to resist the candy jar, focus on your work, and suppress signs of the irritation you feel toward your co-worker, you may find you don’t have much left for that home-improvement project you’ve planned for the evening. This isn’t just about being tired or giving up — it’s a physiological change. The brains of people who have exercised a lot of willpower are actually functioning differently (decreased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, in case you were wondering).

when you overuse your willpower, it will give up on you.

This doesn’t mean positive change isn’t possible. It just means our first impulse is to do it wrongly. Here are some simple ways to incorporate positive change into our lives, without overburdening our beleaguered willpower.

Systems instead of self-control

Systems, not self-control. The most important, well-researched aspect of moving beyond an overburdened willpower is to create systems to support you. We already know that somebody fighting diabetes shouldn’t keep oreo-fudge ice cream in the freezer. Similarly, expecting to be disciplined enough to focus deeply on a project while we keep our cell phone handy, our email up, and our door open is setting ourselves up for failure.

Instead of using willpower to get work done, create systems that move you along.

In a previous post we mentioned Dr. Hallowell, who studies chronic interruption and multitasking that’s built into the modern habit of “attention deficit trait,” or ADT. Hallowell doesn’t recommend self-discipline, but rather “organizing for ADT,” through a system that makes it easier to focus, and harder to distract yourself. He recommends practices like scheduling specific hours for checking email, instead of allowing them to interrupt your day.

[Of course, this is also why we’ve built Filevine, which manages interruptions for you by moving all but the most urgent into a system where they can be dealt with on your own time frame. We use it because we’ve found it brings greater efficiency and reduced stress — without the need to constantly work our willpower.]

Hack Your Brain

Trick your brain. Sometimes it’s possible to use our neurochemistry in our favor. Find ways to fool yourself. For example, research suggests that our body postures alone can encourage better behavior. Simply facing and approaching an object makes our body more likely to feel that it’s positive, while distancing ourselves or wrinkling our noses in disgust about something else (like that cigarette you feel the urge to smoke) has the capacity to make our bodies want it less.

There’s also the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the human tendency to finish something that you start (which also comes into play when you simply have to see the season finale of a show that bores you). This means that simply diving in and starting on a simple aspect of a project could give you enough of a natural boost to tackle the more complex aspects.

Self-acceptance, not criticism.

Self-acceptance instead of criticism: Now that you know willpower can be a limited resource, be gentle with yourself when it runs out on you. Watch how you talk to yourself when you’re trying to get a project done. Do you criticize, disparage, lambast? If so, imagine how a co-worker or employee would respond if you spoke to her with that tone. She might want to quit — which is precisely how our bodies respond to this kind of self-talk. It might sound a little ‘fluffy’ to say that you have to be compassionate to yourself as you face challenges — but if you’re hard-nosed about getting things done, then the science suggests compassion may simply be more effective. Psychologists are concluding that “somewhat paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.”

“somewhat paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.”

Accepting your limits can also mean giving yourself permission to avoid willpower-taxing situations — such as a maddening, draining person in your life. Being around someone you find unpleasant or offensive requires intense work on the part of your willpower, as you suppress your emotions and put on a mask of civility. You might find that a compassionate demeanor toward yourself requires cutting or curtailing that connection.

The compassionate approach to life changes is also one which can be patient. Instead of throwing everything on yourself at once, consider making one or two “microresolutions” at a time, and giving yourself plenty of time to incorporate them in your life.

Remember Your Core Values

Connect to core values. Controlling ourselves or pushing ourselves is much easier when you can clearly connect it with the development of your own core values, instead of acting out of pressure from others. If you’re acting to please others, research shows your willpower will deplete much more quickly than if you’re feeling autonomy. If you’re frequently taxed by a task, take time to think through what your core values are: if the activity doesn’t connect even indirectly to your core values, reconsider spending your precious time doing it.