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The new NO-WILL will power

Most of us associate it with iron will and a fun-less existence but scientists are unlocking new secrets behind will power and discovering it comes not from trying harder through gritted teeth but regularly giving ourselves a break.   The two big  players in this field, social scientists Roy Baumeister and Kelly McGonigal have devoted much of their academic lives to discovering the real secrets of self control.  They’re not what you think.

There are two emotional systems at work in the brain when we talk about self-control: our impulses and our powers of reflection.  The impulsive self makes fast associations between a choice we face and how it will make us feel.  It scans our environment for quick forms of pleasure and reward.  For example, the vending machine equals chocolate equals a sugar hit of quick energy. Our reflective self on the other hand is more concerned with planning, reasoning and long-term goals, such as making a decision to lose weight or get healthy.

If you ever feel in two minds when faced with a tempting something/someone-or-other it could be an emotional battle between your impulsive and reflective self. The two systems compete for control over our reaction or response to some want be that hunger, lust, rest or whatever.   Now, studies have found that when we’re under stress or have been doing hours and hours of tough mental work, our reflective self is weakened and our impulsive self is more likely to take over our response, making us less likely to choose what we know will make us feel better long-term and more likely to choose the instantly gratifying quick-fix.  Even if we know full well we might not feel better about our choice tomorrow, our impulsive self renders us less likely to care.

What Baumeister’s people at Florida State University have now found is that mental strain and stress sap the energy your reflective self requires to help you make healthier choices about your behavior.  In short, your reflective self functions best when you’re rested and relaxed.  When you’re stressed and exhausted, your impulsive self seizes the opportunity to take over.  According to this theory, the mental strain you’re under makes it less likely you’ll be able to resist quick-gratification behaviours, like the vending machine or pub once the task at hand is over – most of know that feeling.  It’s your impulse system at work.  What strengthens your reflective system though, is regular deep rest, relaxation and recovery, during stressful times as well as after they have passed.


Will power is a muscle that can be built up In Baumeister’s studies, they found that anything you tried to exert self-control over from giving up chocolate to swearing less was difficult at first but invariably got easier as time went on and you continued with the new behavior.

…and tired out They call this ‘ego depletion’ and say that when we are tired out and exhausted is the time we’re most likely to get out of control and reach for anything we can find because the impulsive self takes over and weakens our resolve.  It’s why I – totally exhausted and working into the evening many nights – might inhale a Galaxy Bar when in a perfect world I (apparently) don’t eat carbs or sugar…

You can surf the urge  McGonigal found that the brain responses (dopamine pathways usually) responsible in addiction and craving are pretty powerful urges but one thing could interrupt these brain responses which she calls ‘Surfing the urge’, a craving busting technique based on mindfulness.

Try flipping your guilt   McGonigal found that when dieters were taught ways to lower their body shame and hatred they ate less, indulged less in binges and emotional eating and more in healthy behaviours and exercise.  It seems the self-hate that many ‘no pain no gain’ diets and exercise regimes promote keeps the body’s threat system in full tilt and makes it pump out the stress hormones that keep the impulsive self kicking strongly and make it far less likely that we can stop and reflect enough on decisions we’ve taken to lose weight or get healthy.  It sounds awfully American but the research shows that loving your body with all its fat and its flaws is the best way to find the will to change it, not trying to hate it enough to make it change.

Too much choice is bad news for self-control Baumeister’s research found that the more choices we have the less will power we could exert because of a thing called ‘decision fatigue’ that makes you less likely to be able to exert self-control.  The more decisions we have to make the more tired we get, the more tired we get the less self-control we can exert (for the reasons explained above).    So, eliminating unnecessary choices and decisions from our lives could be an easy way of increasing our willpower muscle.

When all else fails, stroke yourself This one is about how we treat ourselves when we blow things.  Many of us may fall for the ‘What the hell’ effect of having a donut and feeling we’re a total screw up and finishing the whole packet, then feeling guilty as hell.  But the new psychological field of Compassion Therapy focuses on self-compassion and shows the more compassion we show for ourselves the less likely we are to do that and instead to learn from the experience and correct it and simply see it as what it is, a little blip in an otherwise healthy lifestyle.

Find out more in : Roy Baumeister Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength , Kelly McGonigal The Willpower Instinct


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