Let's start off with the conventional wisdom. Willpower is how we break free of the past; it's how we undo bad habits and avoid temptation. You've heard this your whole life. If you're eating to much, not exercising enough, being too impulsive, not motivated enough then you just don't have enough willpower. Get it together, you just need to try harder! Where there's a will, there's a way! Right? Perhaps not.
Few of us haven't encountered the willpower challenge. Yet, some people seem to have so much more willpower than others. If she can stop smoking why can't I? The pages of Inc are littered with advice on how to push yourself to the next level. While much of it is great advice, it may very well turn out that willpower has not only been overrated but has very little to do with why some people are so much better at dealing with the distraction of temptation than others. In fact, it may be holding you back!
A recent article in VOX laid out the history of research that has been used to backup the importance of willpower. What's most fascinating about this research, as you start to look at it carefully, is that it has been heavily focused on people self-reporting their degree of willpower. For example, research that is based on answers to a quiz about willpower and self control. However, other tests of willpower in practice show that the correlation between people who say they have abundant willpower and who actually do is inconsequential. For example, you may have come across a version of what's called the Stroop test (one of the most widely used and cited psychological tests), presents you with words that define colors (blue, green, red, etc) but which are written using an different color. So, for example, the world BLUE would be shown in red. When you attempt to rattle off the words in their actual color despite what is written you're demonstrating how well you can control your ability to focus on the task rather than the distraction.
People who say they have high willpower are no better at the test than those who say they do not.
So, if willpower is a challenge for you, should you just resign yourself to a life of distraction, addiction, and temptation? Not necessarily. The problem seems to be that we confuse willpower with self-control. According to the VOX article, if we study people who have high self-control we find that there are four distinct behaviors they exhibit which help them avoid temptations.
They Enjoy What Many Of Us Don't
A sure way to avoid doing anything is to associate it with a negative that adds burden to or subtracts joy from out lives. If you see dieting as the absence of food, or exercise as inflicting pain, or writing as taking up time, you will simply find endless reasons to avoid them. On the other hand, if you can associate the activity with a positive such as a reward, an emotional refuge, the ability to explore new ideas, foods, or people, then you are much more likely to find reasons to do it.
Take Away: Find a reason or a reward that introduces a near-term and ongoing positive element to the task you are avoiding or the temptations you are trying to avoid. Be sure that its enough to distract you from the temptation.
They Have Better Habits That Are Simply Part Of Their Routine
I learned this the hard way. After years of diligently working out every morning I suddenly fell into a rut and was unable to pick the habit back up again for months. I attributed my lack of discipline to the specific event that had initially caused me to stop working out. But what I didn't realize was that the factor which had made it so easy for me to workout every morning was driving my son to school. He had to be there at 7am and I would always go to the gym after dropping him off. No matter what else was going on, his start time didn't change, so neither did mine. Once he got his license I no longer needed to do that. So, when I fell off the routine I didn't have the habit to put me back on it. Instead I had to find another way to make it part of my daily ritual. Which I did by changing my routine and going to bed earlier.
Take away: Use routine and habit to take away the need to decide.
Some Of Us Are Genetically Wired For Temptation
This one can be a bit of a non-starter. After all, if you're genetically predisposed to bad behavior or temptation there's not much you can do about it, right? I'm not the psychologist here but I'm not that quick to buy into this. What I have experienced is that we can rewire our predisposition if we have someone to help us through that. The trite analogy I use is that in the same that way you can't perform surgery on yourself, the mental pain of trying to rewire your core behaviors will always stop you from doing so. This is where a trusted coach is critical. Having to report out to someone or being committed to them as part of your rewiring can put you on a path that you may otherwise simply have avoided or just not had the skills to navigate long enough to make it habit.
Take Away: If you cannot do it on your own find someone who you need to be accountable to who will take the journey with you.
Wealth Creates Self-Control
As if the genetic card wasn't enough to deal with it seems that research shows that wealthy people have an easier time exerting self control. The rational given is that if you're not financially secure you will grab for short term benefits over long term rewards. That's certainly understandable, but I'd like to broaden the conversation somewhat. I don't think this is just about financial wealth. It's also about your sense of self and the degree to which you feel secure in who you are and where you are. In other words, the better you feel about yourself the more likely you are to make decisions that are not driven by temptation. The worse you feel about yourself, the more lily you are to punish yourself with destructive behaviors.
Take away: Focus on why you're not treating yourself better. The answer to that is likely to have more to do with finding a way out of unproductive behaviors than focusing on lack of willpower.
The last thing to understand about the concept of willpower is that it can be one of the best ways to stay stuck where you are. If you feel you lack willpower then you will inevitably think you are failing, and that does nothing to reinforce any of the positive behaviors needed to break out of the viscous cycle of "I should, I'm not, I can't."
Which often makes willpower a myth we buy into that only anchors us to the past.