When I came back to my organization from Christmas holidays, I brought a Latvian chocolate for my Hungarian friend. I was supposed to meet my friend four days after my arrival. After two days of distressing struggle I ate the chocolate. Sure, it was not the wisest choice and my friend didn’t get that special chocolate. I guess, I didn’t have enough willpower. But is it so?
Have you ever had a dream to eat healthy, learn a language, graduate university, read a book or some other goal that never happened? Do you procrastinate? If yes, I wouldn’t say that you are in the right place now, but maybe a bit of explorative information about our willpower skill could rise some prickly activity in the grey matter of the brain.
Procrastination happens more than sometimes with me and I think it is related with a lack of willpower. Looking through dictionary, willpower is explained as the ability to control your own thoughts and the way in which you behave. If I lose motivation in a particular thing, it takes a lot of willpower from me to do it. And sometimes it is not so strong.
Ph.D. Art Markman in he’s article “Is willpower Energy or Motivation?” from journal “Psychology Today” explains willpower as “Stop System” of the body. He writes that other system “Go System” is the one that supports actions, but “Stop System” works as brakes. For example dieting – people use their “Stop System” to keep on their diet and not to give up to their temptations. He debates several other researches on the topic, suggesting that failures of willpower reflect of the motivational system and not just a lack of energy. He also suggests that if you find yourself in a difficult spot try to find a way to give yourself a little reward that could work as motivation. For my case, in the moment I wanted to eat the chocolate, I could call my friend and start a nice conversation, forgetting about my impulsive temptation.
I’m suggesting you to make a willpower challenge! Just think of a thing you are procrastinating day by day or some habit that destroys your health, happiness or success. Can you change it from this moment, let’s say, for a week?
Maybe it will be helpful for your challenge, if I would share with you some interesting thoughts from the book “The willpower instinct”, the book is written by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., instructor of the acclaimed Stanford University course “The Science of Willpower”. I think it is worth read it, as it could inspire us to think about the topic from a different kind of perspective.
In this book, the author describes willpower as self-control, as it helps us to reach our long term goals, keeping away short term immediate distractions. From the historical point of view, self-control has developed together with a development of human species. Our ancestors for 100.000 years ago, followed more their primary instincts: to get food, to reproduce and to survive. As time passed the needs for human beings multiplied. The need to fit in, cooperate, maintain long-term relationships, put pressure on our human brains to develop strategies for self control. Nowadays many of us have plenty of food and doesn’t have to worry about their offspring amount to survive (of course, there are a lot of places on Earth, where it is happening, but I’m writing from European perspective). Regarding to that, there is no need to overeat, if we don’t want to develop extra weight or heart diseases and there is no need to have sex with every attractive person we see on street, if we want to develop long-term relationships, but sometimes we struggle with that and follow our impulses which comes from instincts. Of course, it doesn’t mean that instincts are not necessary, they are, but for some of those, we have a smart choice to follow or not.
Let’s take a scull off and look into our brains magic! As the previous mentioned author is saying, the ability to self-control hides in our prefrontal cortex of the brain which not only controls the physical movements – running, walking, reaching etc. but also what we pay attention to, what are we thinking about and even what we are feeling. Basically, if we have a sudden impulse to grab a cake, we also have a part of our brain that can control and stop the impulse. And it is possible to train it! If we will use our willpower more, it will be more easy to resist short term temptations by time (but about that, we will discuss more next time). Another interesting fact from the book is that many temporary states – like being drunk, sleep deprived or distracted, trigs the prefrontal cortex. This leaves us to be less able to control our impulses.
At the end of this article more questions pops up in my mind. Are those struggles with the willpower worth it, if we could just follow our guilty pleasures, die young and be happy? But what makes us happy? How to motivate myself?
As C. Duhigg says “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”