Probably everyone wishes, at one time or another, for more willpower.
With consistent willpower, we can banish our worst habits. We can finally ignore what we once regarded as temptations luring us toward the promise of pleasure, distraction, or relief, only to discover that they slam us with guilt and regret when we give in. With sufficient willpower we can develop habits that make us stronger, healthier, smarter, wealthier, or more attractive, depending on our goals.
The source of willpower is found in the brain’s prefrontal lobe, home of the “executive function.” The prefrontal lobe gives us the ability to execute the actions that lead to accomplishing our goals. Like an executive or a business manager, it decides what gets done or not done. The prefrontal lobe gives us the capacity for:
• Evaluating options
• Directing attention
• Delaying gratification
• Following rules
The brain’s reward circuit creates habits through the release of a neuro-chemical called dopamine. The reward circuit encourages us to remember substances and experiences that initially bestow “rewards” – feelings of excitement, pleasure, or relief – and remember what we did to obtain those rewards. Dopamine urges us to pay attention to cues that signal when those substances and experiences are available, encouraging us to “do it again,” setting up an expectation of more rewards. The reward circuit can put our brains in a constant struggle between succumbing to bad habits or following the dictates of our more virtuous executive function.
When we give in to the urgings of the brain’s reward circuitry, we are more likely to watch television instead of taking a walk, choose the cookies instead of the apple, play video games instead of doing homework. The problem with dopamine is that it overrides rational judgment and good intentions. It can decommission the prefrontal lobe so that we engage in destructive habits over and over again. By strengthening willpower, we get a stronger prefrontal lobe.
In this article, I’ll discuss six factors that weaken willpower, and not surprisingly, there is a remedy for each. These six factors prompt us to pursue our vices. When you become aware of these willpower “bandits” you’ll be better prepared to avoid them and make better choices.
Bandit #1 – Social Influence
Marlene Dietrich once said “The weak are more likely to make the strong weak than the strong are likely to make the weak strong.” The people you hang out with can exert amazing influence over whether you follow healthy or unhealthy behaviors. Friends and family members often introduce us to the very habits that ensnare us. We tend to congregate with people like ourselves. So we have drinking buddies, smoking pals, and we know just who to call to join us in that jaunt to the Baskin Robbins for the triple scoop special!
Mirror neurons in the brain make us want to mimic the behaviors of those around us. By going along with others, we get social reinforcement and a feeling of belonging. So if you want to stop an unwanted habit, stop associating with people who share your weakness. They may be your friends, but they might also sabotage your success; something I wrote about in this article. If you still want to spend time with them, then do it away from the bar, the casino, the ice cream shop, or whatever environment might be your downfall.
If you plan to take up a new habit, find ways to spend time with people who are also engaged in that new behavior. Going to the gym may be more fun than exercising at home just because you’ll be in the presence of others who are exercising. Join a club, or a meet-up group, or a support group and put those mirror neurons to work!
Even if your new habit is a private, solitary activity, you can still get support from others through website forums and from websites where you can chart your progress along with others working on similar goals. You could also hire a life coach to hold you accountable, discuss your progress, help you problem-solve, and teach you motivate yourself.
Bandit #2 – Fatigue
It’s obvious that we give in to temptation when we feel tired. The three main causes of fatigue are overwork, inadequate sleep, and low blood sugar. To combat fatigue, find a way to balance your work time and your personal time. You may need to negotiate with your supervisor and/or coworkers to modify your schedule, the number of hours you work, or the range of your responsibilities. Perhaps you need to delegate. Perhaps you need to get to bed earlier so that your work day is more productive. Perhaps you need to eat foods that give you more stamina and energy.
Inadequate sleep will undermine your resolve to stop a bad habit or start a new one. Inadequate sleep has been shown to reduce energy, lower productivity, compromise immunity, and cause weight gain. The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research estimates that 70 million people suffer from sleep problems. Many people take over-the-counter sleeping pills or prescription drugs for sleep disorders such as insomnia. You can do better by learning to manage stress (see below) more effectively. Also, consider hypnotherapy for insomnia.
Low blood sugar is often a result of what you eat. Sugars, fats, starches, many processed foods, and alcohol break down quickly in the digestive system, converting to sugar. These foods are high in empty calories and low in nutritional value. They raise blood sugar levels, causing the pancreas to pump out more insulin to bring down sugar levels. As blood sugar levels drop, the result is fatigue, poor concentration, and cravings for more of those foods. You’ll have more staying power if you get off the sugar/fat/starch cycle and start eating foods high in fiber and protein that are digested more slowly.
Bandit #3 – Focusing on What You Don’t Want
Focusing on what you don’t want isn’t a well-formed outcome. It’s better to say “I want to achieve a healthy weight,” than to say, “I don’t want to be so fat” A positively stated goal or outcome focuses attention on the solution, not the problem.
The problem is that when people grapple with habits and temptations on a daily basis they tend to focus on what to avoid. They say something like, “When I am at the party tonight I will resist the urge to eat the cookies and cakes.” So, at the party, where does the attention go? It goes right to those forbidden goodies. Now, the dopamine in your brain insists that you must have as many as you can consume! Your executive function has been high-jacked and your willpower seems to have escaped out the nearest window.
The remedy is to focus your attention on what you will do instead: “When I go to the party tonight I will nibble on munchies from the vegetable tray.” Here’s another pitfall to be aware of, however. For many people, doing something “good” (i.e., eating the veggies) gives them permission to do something “bad” as a reward (i.e., eating the cake). If you define your habit as an indulgence for being “good” and you think that that being “bad” is a reward for being “good,” then you’ll remain mired in the habit that causes your misery. Read more about this in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct.
Bandit #4 – Negative Self-talk
Many people honestly believe that by criticizing and chastising themselves, they will turn to better behavior. That’s usually wrong! How would you feel if another person scolded you or belittled you on a daily basis? You would hate it. Negative self-talk often triggers the brain’s alarm system – bringing anxiety. So the brain decides the best way to alleviate that anxiety is to demand relief – and your reward system will insist you must have that drink, that chocolate, or that bag of potato chips.
There are many ways to change negative self-talk, especially with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). You can dismantle it, invalidate it, reframe it, and replace it. Contact an NLP practitioner and read more about it in Steve Andreas’ nifty book, Transforming Negative Self-talk.
Bandit #5 – Perfectionist Strivings
Many people get stalled out on starting a new, desired habit because they insist it must be done perfectly, and if it isn’t perfect, then they will have failed. So they procrastinate, stewing in fear-of-failure anxiety. Moreover, many people begin a new, desired habit only to quit at the first sign of difficulty. A goal based on perfection is not achievable.
Whoever said “Anything worth doing is worth doing right,” and “If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all,” did not understand how humans learn. We learn most anything that is difficult through trial and error. In many undertakings we must start out as beginners, making mistakes and correcting them until we achieve consistency and competence. Stop relying on the idea that you must be perfect. Jump in and learn as you go, expecting to have mistakes and lapses along the way. Remember, life is messy – so get on with it.
Bandit #6 – Stress
You probably know that stress can sap your willpower in a hurry. That’s because stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and sets off activity in the brain’s limbic region, the seat of worry and anxiety. When the limbic system is getting the brain’s energy, there is little left over for the prefrontal lobe. It’s as though your brain’s executive has been scared off by an unruly mob of neurotransmitters screaming that everything is going wrong. You’ll regain some control when you see stress as a signal to apply coping mechanisms.
Stop The Bandits!
So look at your daily life and identify your willpower bandits. Ask yourself:
• Do I hang out with people who have healthy habits, or with people who have unhealthy habits?
• Do I get enough sleep – or is there some way I could improve my sleep habits?
• Do I focus too much on what I don’t want, when I should be focusing on what I want instead?
• Do I have negative self-talk going on in my head that undermines my willpower?
• Do I sabotage my good intentions with perfectionist strivings?
• Am I handling the stress in my life effectively, or do I need better stress management skills?
Answer these questions honestly and you might get some clues about how to empower and ramp up your executive function so that you muster the will power to conquer bad habits and start good ones!
Andreas, S. 2012. Transforming Negative Self-talk. New York: W. W. Norton
McGonigal, K. 2011. The Willpower Instinct. New York: Avery