It doesn’t matter whether you’re struggling against an addiction, or seeking massive personal growth, our conventional wisdom is flawed. Willpower, for all its acclaim, is not the first tool we should reach for when looking for accomplishment.
In this article I’m going to share with you the learnings of various psychology studies carried out in the latter half of the 20th century. The findings will not only challenge your current thinking on personal development, but they’ll make an argument for why self-control strategies is the best way to support your future growth.
Willpower And The Internal Battle
When I was growing up, my mom would smoke cigarettes daily. She’d smoke 20+ a day, enough to put her firmly in the “addict” camp. Quitting was inconceivable to her, because she reckoned it would come down to a battle between two things: her will to stop, and the addictive power of the smokes.
It was a fight she didn’t even want to have. In her mind, the conclusion was forgone: she would lose.
As a society, our conversation around making personal change is fraught with problems. It tells us that to quit smoking, rise at 5am, write that book or to hit the gym, we require a constant supply of willpower.
This is not only inaccurate, it’s harmful. As with the case of my mum, why try if you don’t believe you can win?
Instead, we need to adopt a state where willpower is needed only in the most desperate of circumstances.
One Marshmallow Or Two?
In his book The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel talks about areas of the brain that he calls the “hot” system and the “cool” system. Respectively, these sections of the brain determine how readily we act on impulse versus how much we are able to resist immediate temptations and take a longer (generally more healthy) view.
Under lab conditions, children who reached for one marshmallow immediately, rather than waiting an indefinite amount of time for two, possessed a much stronger “cool” system.
These children – the ones who managed to wait for a greater, delayed reward – went on to have more successful lives. They enjoyed greater financial success and better relationships.
Research into why some of the kids were able to wait and others simply couldn’t gives us some pointers that can help us in our everyday lives.
Self-Control Strategies, Not Willpower, Is The Answer
When resisting the temptation to scoop up and eat the marshmallow immediately, the children who delayed gratification had a special power up their sleeves. They could distract themselves. They would sing to themselves and rock back and forth on the chair. Some would even cover their eyes or turn away from the tempting treat to cool their desire for them.
These strategies are what separated the impulsive marshmallow-munchers from the ones who managed to hold out.
And while willpower can play its part here, the answer can be found in the techniques used by the kids. By turning away from the temptation, they didn’t need to rely on their will alone.
Imagine staring at a hot, gooey marshmallow right in front of you and trying not to eat it. Your willpower would crumble. But by utilizing a self-control strategy – like looking around the room, playing with your hands etc. – they cooled their temptation for just enough time to delay their gratification.
Applying These Ideas To Our Own Lives
If you’re struggling to quit a bad habit or form new, positive habits, there’s a lot you can do outside of reaching for willpower. When it’s a battle of will against temptation (to stay in bed, to eat another slice of cake), your will invariably loses.
Making Exercise Easy
If you want to get over procrastinating and hit the gym, invest in new gear and keep it placed in direct sight for when you wake up in the morning. This simple strategy – making it easy to reach for your kit – can help get you to the gym.
Rather this than rummaging through an old gym bag and pulling out a crumpled shirt in the darkness of the morning, right? Make it easy for yourself.
One of the experiments cited by Mischel on smoking involved smokers thinking positively about cigarettes versus negatively. The smell of the smoke to an addict who’s hankering is tempting, but if you look at a cigarette and imagine lung cancer, all of a sudden it seems less appealing.
Think about one of your cravings – how can you put a negative spin on it? Hold that image in your mind. This strategy will help support your willpower and kick the addiction.
If you have a fear of something like flying or public speaking, a common practice is simply to “power through” (i.e. rely on your willpower to carry you). But wouldn’t it just be easier if you wanted to get on the plane or the stage? Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t feel like you needed to force yourself into these situations?
One of the techniques used by the kids was visualization. That is, they were able to see the result of waiting (for two marshmallows) in their mind’s eye. What rewards await you when you step off the plane? How might public speaking help your career path?
Imagine these outcomes in vivid detail to overcome your fears.
Stop Fighting, Start Working
Using willpower alone is hard work. Using self-control strategies is smart work. As people who practice personal development, we should always be looking for techniques that work with our flow of energy, rather than fighting against ourselves.
When you fight yourself, you always lose, because it’s you against you (whichever side wins, you lose). But when you think beyond yourself to a more positive outcome, one that will benefit future–you, big changes begin to happen.
Give it a try: the next time you’re drawing on the energy of willpower, consider what self-control strategies you can implement instead.