Before I share everything I’ve learned about willpower, it might be a good idea to grab a pen and paper and take notes. There is a lot of information I’m about to tell you, and I will be talking about many of the topics listed here individually in future articles. But this is a complete rundown of what willpower is, how you can switch it on, and even get by without it.
Ahhh, willpower. That energy force we must have at all times to succeed at whatever task we’ve set ourselves. Well, that’s what we teach ourselves to believe anyway. The reality is a little bit different. Sometimes we can find the willpower, sometimes we can’t. That’s life. But it doesn’t have to be the defining force in our quest to become the healthiest version of ourselves possible. We can make changes and alterations to our lives and environments that will help us get to where we want to go, even when willpower is lacking.
So, what is willpower then?
Willpower is our ability to control ourselves. It helps us make the decisions we want to make, and take the actions we want to take. It helps us resist temptations we face now to achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves in the future.
The ability to resist immediate temptation is important for overall success in almost every aspect of life.
- Saving up for a house deposit? Better not spend your disposable income on nights out and shopping trips.
- Want to lose 15kg? Better not eat that chocolate cake in the fridge.
- Got an early morning work meeting that you need to prepare for? Better not stay up until 1am watching your favourite movie on cable tonight.
The need to resist temptation is all around us. Sometimes we’re successful at resisting and we reap the long-term rewards. Sometimes we’re not, and while we receive some short-term gratification, we might not get the outcome we truly want. We can say with some certainty that our ultimate success comes down to our ability to say no to short-term rewards in the pursuit of long-term gain.
The Marshmallow Experiment
Professor Walter Mischel conducted a very famous experiment in the 1960’s with hundreds of 4-5-year-old kids. He took each child into a private room and placed a marshmallow on the table. He told the child if he or she didn’t eat the marshmallow while he left the room, they’d get a second marshmallow when he returned. He left the room for 15 minutes and recorded the results. Some kids ate the marshmallow straight away, others battled with the temptation before giving in, and others waited to get a second marshmallow.
The interesting results of this experiment came years later. Mischel periodically interviewed the participants as they grew older over the next 40 years, and the results were incredible. Those who resisted the marshmallow as a kid had:
- Higher SAT scores
- Lower levels of obesity
- Lower levels of drug abuse
- Better stress management abilities
- Better social skills
Mischel also found many other life factors where those who waited for the second marshmallow were more successful than those who didn’t.
The Marshmallow Experiment – Version 2
Some years later a second experiment was conducted replicating the Marshmallow Experiment, but this time the children were split into two groups. The first group were made promises that were never kept. For example, they gave each child:
- A small box of crayons with the promise to bring a bigger box, but never did.
- A small sticker with the promise to bring bigger and better stickers, but never did.
The second group were made the exact same promises, but they were kept. Each child did receive a better box of crayons and better stickers.
After the children completed this phase, the Marshmallow Experiment was conducted. The children in the first group had no reason to believe the person conducting the experiment, so they ate the marshmallow immediately. The second group, after being conditioned to believe that better things were coming, were four times more willing to wait than the first group.
The first Marshmallow Experiment concluded that the ability to delay pleasure was a predetermined character trait, while the second experiment showed that the environment played an enormous role. In fact, the environment was so influential that it had an immediate impact on the children’s decision-making process. One group were conditioned not to trust, while the other learned quickly that waiting meant greater rewards.
What factors affect our willpower?
- The Environment. Go to any supermarket and you’ll understand. The items the supermarket wants to sell are placed where you’re most likely to see them. Promotional items are always placed at the end of the aisles. Brands fight tooth and nail for the shelves at eye level. And small impulse items like chocolate bars are placed in the checkout queue. Anywhere they can put the items they want you to buy in your way, they’ll do it. You can use this method at home. Put healthy food you want to eat at eye level in the fridge and cupboards, and any other foods up high or down low.
- Not getting enough sleep? Guess what? Your willpower is likely to be drastically impaired. Why? Because when you’re tired you tend to think less and make decisions based on what’s easier rather than what’s best for you. Got home from a tough day at work? Probably going to order a pizza rather than make a nutritious meal. Stayed up late last night? Probably not going to get up early and go to the gym. The moral of the story? Get plenty of sleep and you’ll make better decisions in all areas of your life.
Do I need willpower?
If you’ve got the willpower to complete a task, then use it. But if you don’t have the willpower you need to generate it somehow. That’s where a couple of simple strategies can come in very handy.
- Develop your pre-game ritual. Often the hardest part about completing a task is just starting. Walking into the kitchen to cook a healthy meal. Getting in your car to drive to the gym. Turning off the TV and going to bed at a decent hour. They don’t really seem like difficult things to do, but they can certainly feel like it. That’s why you need to create a pre-game ritual, with the end result of you being in the gym, or in the kitchen, or in bed, or wherever will seem inevitable. And the first step of that pre-game ritual needs to be so easy to complete that it doesn’t require any effort on your part to get started. For you, that could mean:
- Setting the alarm on your phone for 9.30pm every night so you go to bed by 10.30pm. That hour might be spent preparing for the next day or reading a book.
- Laying your training gear on the floor next to your bed the night before a gym workout. That way the first thing you do when you swing your legs out of bed is put on your training shorts. From there you’ll finish dressing, drink your protein shake that you prepared the night before, grab your car keys and drive to the gym.
- Bluetoothing your favourite song from your Smartphone through your speakers before heading into the kitchen. You might then slip on your favourite apron, flip open your recipe book and start cooking.
By creating pre-game rituals that take no energy or decision making to start, you’ll instigate a chain reaction of events that leads you into the gym/kitchen/bed/etc. If you can get started without thinking about it, and the remaining steps then fall into place because of habit, then willpower is unnecessary.
- Develop a system where you can only do the things you want to do when you’re doing the healthy habits you’re trying to create. This is called Temptation Bundling. The idea is you’ll increase your motivation and willpower to complete a task because you’ll be doing something you love doing at the same time. Let me give you some examples:
- You can only watch your favourite TV show when you’re foam rolling your leg muscles.
- You can only listen to your favourite music when you’re in the kitchen preparing a nutritious meal.
- You can only listen to your favourite podcast when you’re in the gym doing a workout.
- You can only scroll through your Facebook feed once you’ve completed your 15-minute HIIT session.
You get the drift. Now it’s your turn. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side write down all the things you love to do, and on the right side write down all the healthy habits you know you need to form to reach your goal. Now draw a line from the fun things you like to do on the left side to the healthy habits you’ve written on the right side.
- Plan for those times when life gets in the way. You know what I’m talking about, when the in-laws stay for a week and use your workout room as a bedroom. Or when you’re at a business lunch and there’s nothing healthy on the menu. Or your dog is sick and you’re at the vet when you’ve scheduled a session at the gym. These things happen, but they shouldn’t derail your progress. The occasional missed session or indulgent meal will have no real effect on your long-term goals. It’s when they turn into daily habits that we have a problem. So, to prepare for these moments, you should have a bunch of ‘IF-THEN’ solutions ready to go. What does that mean? Here are a few examples:
- IF it’s raining and I can’t get to the park for my HIIT session, THEN I’ll do it in the garage.
- IF I can’t eat a healthy meal because I don’t have access to quality food, THEN I’ll make sure my next meal is healthy.
- IF I know I’m going to be on the road at lunchtime, THEN I’ll prepare and pack a healthy lunch the night before.
- IF I sleep in when I should be at the gym, THEN I’ll make sure I go after work.
If you can pre-meditate a bunch of scenarios that may arise in the future, and create ‘IF-THEN’ statements for each, you’ll have fewer excuses for not sticking to the plan. If you know there are going to be times when you’ll be in an environment that is a hindrance to your process, then plan ahead using the ‘IF-THEN’ technique. Life is unpredictable, that’s why strict meal plans and rigid training schedules don’t work. But you can soften the blow when unpredictable events happen by creating several ‘IF-THEN’ statements ahead of time.
- Give yourself fewer choices. Too much information can be overwhelming because it requires more decisions to be made. More decision-making will drain your willpower because we’re using more brain energy. As I’ve already mentioned, as soon as our brain gets tired, we tend to make the easier decision rather than the right decision.
Let me give you an example. Ever go to a Chinese restaurant and there are 100’s of options on the menu. It’s like they hand you a book as you’re seated. It takes 10 minutes to read everything, if you can be bothered, and then you either take a guess at what you might want because you lose interest, or you go safe and choose a dish you’ve eaten before. Where’s the fun in that? I much prefer going to a restaurant with a menu that has five options for entrée, five for main course and five for dessert. It forces me to focus. I’ve chosen my food in about 60 seconds and I can get back to enjoying the night with whoever I happen to be there with.
Ask any business coach how you should start a business. The first thing they tell you is to find your niche. It seems counterintuitive to discount a huge pool of potential customers and just market to a select group of people. But by finding your niche you can become an expert in that area, and offer a much better product to people you really want to work with. Trying to service everyone is overwhelming. Concentrating on your niche market gives you focus.
What does this mean for you?
- Stick to a structured gym program for 4-6 weeks. Changing your workout every session is wrong on many levels.
- Come up with 2-3 healthy options for each meal and keep them on rotation. Why try and create a new and unique healthy meal every time when you can save time and energy by creating the same dish that you love repeatedly.
- Set your phone alarm for 10pm every night. When it goes off, turn off the TV and spend 30 minutes getting ready for the next day. Make a protein shake and leave it in the fridge, and lay your training gear out on the floor or pack your gym bag. Then be in bed by 10.30pm so you get eight hours of sleep.
When you leave things open-ended or give yourself too many options, it’s way too easy to make unhealthy decisions, like stay up until 1am on a work night binge watching Game Of Thrones. Instead, place boundaries on your healthy behaviours and you’ll have a far better chance of sticking to them.
- Willpower is our ability to make decisions for future success at the expense of immediate pleasure.
- Willpower can be affected by many things, but mainly the environment we’re in and how tired we are.
- Willpower doesn’t last, it runs out. So, we need strategies to keep us on track when it does. These include:
- Creating a pre-game ritual that is so easy to begin, and includes a series of steps that ends with you performing your healthy habit, i.e. working out or preparing a healthy meal.
- Make a Temptation Bundling list. Pair activities that you love doing such as watching your favourite TV show or listening to your favourite music, with healthy habits that need to be completed, such as going to the gym or making nutritious food. For example, you can only listen to your favourite album when you’re working out in the gym.
- Plan ahead with ‘IF-THEN’ strategies. For example, one strategy could be “IF I’m going to be up late tonight and can’t make my early morning gym session, THEN I’ll pack my bag and go after work.”
- Give yourself fewer choices. Having too many choices means more thinking and more decision-making, which is a drain on our willpower. For example, stick to a structured gym routine for 4-6 weeks, or plan and prepare a small number of healthy meals consistently.
Good luck. Over to you…