Why willpower fails us

Why willpower fails us

By Frank Clayton, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Jun. 20, 2012 at 8:25 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Many people get down on themselves for not being able to resist sweets, quit smoking or stick to their New Year’s resolutions. This is sad because it is likely that these people have about the same amount of willpower as everyone else: very little.

In Shawn Achor’s book, "The Happiness Advantage," he explains that most people are born with a very shallow reserve of willpower and, unlike a muscle, the more you use it, the weaker it gets. That is only part of the problem. Not only does our resolve draw from this particular reservoir, so does decision-making.

Willpower expert Roy Baumeister conducted experiments in which people were put in a room with a tasty treat but told they could not eat. They were then asked to solve a geometric puzzle. Because their willpower was being drained, they did poorly on solving the puzzle. In similar experiments when subjects were asked to make low-level decisions (i.e. whether they like the blue scarf or the green scarf) they were more indecisive and easily frustrated.

Think of the number of decisions we make every day. Many of them are very low-level but still drain that reservoir that holds our willpower. With this information, isn’t it a little more understandable why the person struggling with alcoholism gives in to temptation after a hard day at the office (undoubtedly making many decisions big and small).


How do we improve our willpower? We don't. Instead know that your willpower reservoir is probably pretty shallow like most everyone else and work within those limitation.

Doesn’t it make sense now as to why after being bombarded with advertisements and making choices at the grocery store that our willpower “fails” us when faced with the candy bars at the check-out line? Think of yourself and times that you have given in to temptation. Had your willpower reservoir been sapped by decision-making?

How do we improve our willpower? We don’t. Instead know that your willpower reservoir is probably pretty shallow like most everyone else and work within those limitations by outsmarting yourself with three tools: distract, the 20-second rule and making decisions beforehand.

Distraction is a very powerful tool when used properly. It works well to avoid the draining of our willpower reservoir but only if the distraction is powerful enough to truly distract. Many times people will attempt to distract themselves with something that is fairly mindless, like doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing solitaire. Yes, it uses part of your brain, but probably not enough. Because your brain is not fully engaged on the puzzle, the other part is left to wander — and guess where it’ll probably wander to? Yep — the sweets, or the alcohol or cigarettes.

So the trick is to find a distraction that actually occupies all of your attention, such as a riveting book, a difficult puzzle game (like Sudoku) or learning a new piece of music.

Achor lists a very powerful tool in "The Happiness Advantage" called the 20-second rule. It is actually very easy to use. Simply identify the habits that you want to decrease and make it 20 seconds more difficult for yourself to access that habit.

Addicted to Angry Birds? Bury it in your E-toy deep enough that it takes you an extra 20 seconds to get to it. Move the sweets from front and center in the pantry to a bottom drawer in the garage. Lock up the alcohol and instead of keeping the keys on your key ring, add an additional 20 seconds by putting the keys on the other side of the house — or better yet, don’t buy it in the first place, turning the 20-second rule into the 20- minute rule.


Make decisions before you have to make decisions.

The 20-second rule also works well to create new, healthy habits. If your New Year’s resolution was to exercise more often, make it 20 seconds easier for yourself. Instead of trying to figure out what to wear for your workout, make a habit of laying your clothes out the night before, so they are easily accessible.

If you want to make a habit of checking your to-do list each day, arrange it so it is front and center at the beginning of each day, rather than having to pull it up or look for it. Making it easier on yourself will reduce the amount of willpower it takes to do the task, greatly increasing your chances of success.

Achor also suggests that whenever possible, make decisions before you have to make decisions. Instead of trying to decide what to buy in the grocery store, when you have already been bombarded with choices, make your grocery list beforehand. Be as specific as possible beforehand because even a low-level decision like skim milk or 2 percent can drain our already depleted reservoir while in the middle of the grocery store experience.

In the world of therapy, we speak about seemingly unimportant decisions (SUDS). This dovetails nicely into Achor's notion of making good choices early on. Many times when people relapse with drugs or alcohol, they can retrace their steps and find a series of SUDS, such as “I will just go by the old neighborhood,” “I’m just going to say ‘hi’ ” or “I will just tuck this money away for an emergency.”

Notice that all of these sentences use the word “just.” This makes them seem like an unimportant decision but that word "just" is actually another link in the chain of relapse. If you perceive that your willpower failed you in the past, you might think back to uncover your SUDS, thus giving you an opportunity next time to make different decisions early and easily.

The best way to deal with willpower is being smarter than yourself. Do not put yourself into the direct path of temptation if at all possible. If you do succumb, remember that history is a book, not a hammer. Use the relapse as an opportunity to learn how you might better outsmart yourself next time.

Be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up for being “weak” or having “no willpower” is only going to weaken your resolve, and guilt serves as a poor motivator. Instead, use the tools you have learned. You now have the knowledge and willpower to make it happen.

Frank Clayton is a licensed professional counselor, specializing in happiness. He has taught the fundamentals of positive psychology at businesses, mental health organizations and local universities. He still teaches Happiness 101 free of charge.

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