Willpower is often described as the ability to do something that’s tough - to resist a short term pleasure in pursuit of a longer term goal. Willpower and self-control are undeniably similar concepts, however, I was intrigued to read more from Kelly McGonigal about the science of willpower and felt obliged to share some of her findings as so much of our work in attaining optimal wellness is about “making the tougher choice”. But first a bit about evolution and where willpower came from.
In early days we had very primitive responsibilities – to eat, to reproduce and to stay alive. As time went on though it became clear that to remain in a tribe (and thus ensure your survival) you had to fit in and “not piss anyone off”! Hence, restraint and the early formation of willpower was created. Society evolved in all its complexity and willpower and self-control became more important. It is evident that in today’s world, people who have better control of their emotions, attention and actions fare better than those who have poor impulse control.
McGonigal points out quite rightly that challenges we face when exercising “willpower” fall into three areas. We have the power challenge of “I will”, the power challenge of “I won’t” and finally the power challenge of “I want”.
Our brains have developed a distinct area that deals with these challenges – the pre-frontal cortex which in turn is divided into three areas – one for each of the power challenges listed above.
So what does this mean in terms of life and living well? First, let’s expand on those three power challenges. There are times when we have to be able to say “no” and resist that next piece of cheesecake, that invitation to a party when we need to study – enter, “I won’t power”. There are times when we have to act and stop putting off that piece of work, get off the lounge and go to the gym or have that uncomfortable conversation– enter, “I will” power. Then somewhere deep inside us we need to keep track of our goals and desires – “I want” power – and this is more about our long term dreams and desires rather than what we want in the moment.
Our pre-frontal cortex gives us the capacity to do the harder thing. Just because we have the capacity, doesn’t mean, however, that we use it always! That takes practice and a great deal of self-awareness.
So what can we do with this knowledge? Step one is to take time to become aware of what is going on in our minds. If we can spend a week reflecting on every time we have to struggle with a decision about a behaviour – which of the power challenges were we facing? “I will, I won’t, or I want?” Which is the harder choice? What makes it hard? If you had two competing ‘selves” – the impulsive self and the wise self, what does each of them want? The first step is always in understanding. We’ll look more at this in future blogs!