A Research Paper By Georgina Bartels, Transition Coach, GHANA
Willpower – My Health and Wellbeing and Changes at Work
In the past few months, the subject of willpower has fascinated me. This has been brought sharply into focus because of the Coronavirus pandemic, my journey with ICA, my health and wellbeing, and changes at work. In all of these changing scenes of my life, I have come to realize that willpower plays a huge part in success, the absence of it, and the path that one takes in achieving a goal. We all have goals, some of them consciously made with action plans and strategies to meet them, and others unconscious which comes to us as part of our daily lives. For each one, willpower determines whether we will carry through or not. During this pandemic, I have had to draw on my willpower in many instances and have been very present to how it has helped me. The easiest example to call up is eating right and looking after my health and mental well-being during this pandemic. With working from home with periods of lockdown, the motivation to eat right, exercise, or have a positive outlook can be seriously lacking. When boredom, fear, and uncertainty set in, there is a tendency to forget all the goals one has set and act out of character. Willpower keeps the “why” in sharp focus and prevents a derailing of earlier plans and goals. Sheer willpower keeps my foot on the pedal and moving forward. The caveat however is that other elements affect how much you can or should rely on your willpower alone. My research is focused on how willpower drives individuals towards their goals and how as coaches we can use this to guide our clients towards the goals that they have set for themselves and how they can apply them to other aspects of their lives. It also highlights what conditions must be present for willpower to work or help you achieve results.
Willpower: Why Is It Important?
The Webster Dictionary defines willpower as a strong determination that allows one to do something difficult.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way is a proverb, we have all heard which means that if someone is determined to do something, he will find a way to accomplish it regardless of obstacles. This applies both in positive and negative situations.“The sentiment of this phrase was first published in 1640, in the work Jacula Prudentum, written by George Herbert: “To him that will, ways are not wanting.” By the 1820s the phrase had been altered to where there’s a will there’s away.” This implies that the concept of “willpower” has existed for a long time. However, research has shown many times over, that willpower alone cannot create or sustain the momentum needed to cause a change in someone’s life.
Willpower is not a trait endowed at birth where you either have it or not. It is a response that involves both mind and body. It can be compromised by external factors and strengthened by the same. Many people blame their lack of success in various areas of their lives on the absence of willpower. This is referred to by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzleras as the “willpower trap” in their book “Change Anything”. This book revisits the experiments conducted years ago by Psychologists, Walter Mischel and Albert Bandura(marshmallow experiment) on willpower and further explores what makes some people able to have/use their willpower and others unable to.
“In 2011, 27% of Stress in America survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change. Survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with changes in their lives.” (apa.org)
Willpower according to the American Psychological Association can be defined as:
- The ability to delay gratification, resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
- A limited resource capable of being depleted
The question remains, what then, allows one individual to be able to delay gratification, hold back the impulse to indulge in something, or maintain their self-control whilst another cannot? What happens when that same individual at another time is faced with the same challenge or temptation and is no longer able to use their willpower to overcome? Has the individual used up all their willpower then? Are they able to replenish their “store” of willpower?
Experts believe that willpower is like a muscle. To a certain extent, you can build it up over time. In the same way that you build up willpower, you can also delete it by constantly putting yourself in a position where you have to use it to stop yourself from doing one thing or the other. This continued reliance on willpower can gradually weaken one’s ability to resist temptation and follow through on commitments.
According to some researchers you are more able to use or rely on your willpower when working towards your own goals than when you are called upon to sacrifice for others. When it is for others, there is a bigger drain on your willpower.
Willpower is fragile and subject to stress, cues, and triggers. It can disappear in the twinkling of an eye. So, what makes it possible to build willpower, so strong that it helps you achieve your goals, stay focused, resist temptation? This can be done by looking outside one’s self and focusing on cues and triggers, controlling them and your reaction to temptation or the urge to give up.
Strengthening Your Willpower
To either create a new behavior or habit or change an old one, single-minded focus and attention must be paid to the process. Succeeding or failing depends on how much effort was put into the process. We have seen that depending on sheer willpower alone will not work. Certain elements must be added to ensure that one succeeds. Some of these are:
- Clearly define what your goals are. This is needed whether you are starting a new habit such as exercising daily, getting a degree, ditching the habit of drinking, staying in shape, or reinforcing a positive behavior such as being time conscious, managing stress, tackling a new job. Once the idea is clearly defined you can see what the end looks like., write down the goals somewhere you can see them. It is said that goals that are written down are more likely to be achieved than ones that are just a concept in one’s mind. Visualizing and putting down a goal also helps to keep one accountable and provides an easier way to track progress. The goal should be a SMART one with clearly defined outcomes.
- Identify similar instances in your past where you have succeeded or failed at a similar goal and document what caused the success or failure. Analyze the current goal and determine what the potential pitfalls or triggers could be. If for example the goal is to lose weight and watching cooking shows, prompts you to cook and consume unhealthy meals, then that will be considered a trigger. A trigger is anything that prompts behavior contrary to the achieving of set goals. Catalog all the different triggers and what conditions make it conducive for them to occur.
- Consciously create new behaviors that will replace the undesirable ones. Identify achievable steps that will help you create the new behaviors recognizing that it will take a while before they become habits. Plan how you will embed the new behaviors and what good looks like. Hold yourself accountable for exhibiting the behaviors. For example, if you snack when bored because your fingers must stay busy, get a stress ball, or playdoh or an activity that will keep your fingers and mouth busy.
- Once this is done, celebrate anytime you model the new behaviors and achieve a small goal. Rewards have been known to keep motivation high. Share your progress if possible, with people who will cheer you on when they see you are making strides.
Utilizing these steps creates less of a dependence on willpower alone as a means of achieving goals but makes it an essential part of a system that allows one to succeed at a set target. It is said that willpower is like a muscle and over utilizing it can also cause fatigue. To prevent this from happening
- Avoid temptation – putting yourself constantly in situations where you have to avoid temptation or use your willpower, actually causes a depletion in the will, and when you need to use it for something important you will lack the mental capacity to do so. There have been many studies on this the most notable by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
- Banish thoughts of the thing/behavior you are trying to change. Constantly thinking of the undesirable state makes one prone to indulging in behaviors that promote that state. Constantly thinking for example of how not to be irritated when you meet that overbearing person will likely result in being irritated when you meet them. You would have spent a good amount of energy dwelling on what makes them irritating and you are more likely to immediately see that about them when you are interacting. Instead, think of other people you might be meeting at the same time and what conversation you might have. This diverts your mental energies elsewhere.
- Do not attempt to do everything at once. Taking on too much could be overwhelming and realistically impossible to achieve. When you have small manageable steps to achieve, there will be less of a need to power through or just keep going even when you are fatigued. In this situation, you will use less of your willpower to succeed and make use of the elements that support it.
Willpower Is Essential in Coaching
In coaching, the coach’s job is to partner with the client to explore ways in which to achieve a set goal. Many times, clients come up with options that require them to call on their willpower to make the changes needed in their lives. People attribute a lot of their success or failure to the strength of their willpower and sometimes indicate that they were born with a certain type of willpower. Research has shown that since willpower is essential, adding other factors or elements strengthens or weaken it. Meaning that willpower can be cultivated or learned.
“We rely on willpower to exercise, diet, save money, quit smoking, stop drinking, overcome procrastination, and ultimately accomplish any of our goals. It impacts every area of our lives.” (PositivePsychology.com)
“At the core of willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations and desires to achieve long-term goals. It is the prevailing source of long-term satisfaction over instant gratification[…]Anywhere you look at it, people with greater willpower are:
- More satisfied in their relationships
- Wealthier and further ahead in their careers
- More able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity
The point is this:
we all have willpower and we all use it to some extent. But most of us would be closer to achieving all our goals if we focused on improving our willpower. Catarina Lino, MAPP, Psychologist – PositivePsychology.com -2021
In conclusion, one cannot discount the importance or the power of will. To fully utilize it one must fall upon other elements and skills to strengthen and build it. This will go a long way in creating the conditions necessary to achieve goals. As coaches, we must encourage the use of strategies that will enable our clients to achieve their goals.
Change Anything - by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler