Podcast Transcriptions

Pursue What Matters

Episode 64: The Truth About Willpower & How to Harness it

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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
We’ve heard a lot over the years about harnessing the power of willpower, but is willpower even a thing? Let’s figure it out so you can focus your energy on what works and forget about the rest.


Dr. Melissa Smith 0:14
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Okay, so is willpower even a thing? Let’s look at some quotes from some of the profound thinkers of our time. So first from Gandhi, strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will. Okay, so Gandhi, he definitely had an indomitable will. So there’s, there’s that that’s good. And here we have from will Shakespeare, right, William Shakespeare, he’s, he’s a good thinker. So tis in ourselves that we are thus or the US. That’s interesting. Okay. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. Okay. So there’s, there’s some profound thinking. And here’s another one. This is from James Gordon. It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t. It’s that some people are ready to change, and others are not. Hmm. That’s an interesting thought. I wonder if there’s more to that. Okay. And another really profound and deep thinker of our time, maybe you’ve heard of him. So this is the deeply philosophical Ron Swanson to Leslie Knope, from Parks and Rec. Maybe you’ve heard of him. This is what he had to say never half assed two things, whole ass one thing. That’s what he had to say about willpower. So Hmm, I wonder if that clarifies things for us. So we live in a world of now, if we want something, we can buy it with one click, if we want to watch something, we can find it with one click. We are self indulged, we lack the ability to delay gratification. And we are distracted by an endless stream of technological squirrels scrolling across our screens. So I’m wondering if our only problem is a lack of willpower? I don’t know. Let’s look into it. Let’s look at the research. Let’s let’s figure out if willpower is even a thing. And so today, I want to look at the truth of the truth about willpower, and how to leverage it for growth. Because right, we’re all about pursuing what matters. And of course, every week, my goal is to help you develop and strengthen your confidence to lead. And so I do that with in one of three areas. And today, I want to focus on leading with clarity and curiosity. So when we think about clarity, it’s really about having a goal in mind. And of course, when we think about willpower, that’s important. Because willpower, you know, if willpower is never enough alone, and we’ll talk about that a little bit more. But you got to have a sense of purpose, you’ve got to have a sense of meaning you’ve got to have a goal. And that’s what clarity is all about. And then of course, curiosity is this idea of self awareness and self leadership and being able to discipline yourself.


Dr. Melissa Smith 3:57
And one of the ways that we think about willpower is in terms of self control. And curiosity, is developing this self awareness and recognizing what are your limitations? What are your blind spots? What are your rough edges? And where do you need to strengthen your willpower potentially. And so those are the two primary areas that we want to help you develop and strengthen your confidence to lead. So let’s jump in with that. So let’s take a look at willpower when we ask Americans about willpower. In the American Psychological associations annual stress in America survey, they found that many people believe that they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower. So they asked you know if you could improve, you know, if you could improve your lives, you know what would make it better And everyone just said, If I just had more willpower, I would I would do better. So with more self control, we would all eat right, we would exercise regularly, we would avoid drugs and alcohol, we would save for retirement, we would stop procrastinating, we would achieve all sorts of noble goals. So survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the number one reason for not following through with such changes. So there you go. I mean, most of us believe that willpower is our biggest challenge in effective change in our lives. So there you go. So it’s definitely worth our time and attention to take a look at this. So let’s define willpower. Let’s pin it down just a little bit more. There are many common names for willpower and determination, drive resolves self discipline, self control, psychologists characterize willpower or self control. So that’s the most common term for willpower is self control in the psychological literature, in more specific ways. So according to most psychologists, right, or researchers, so psychological researchers, willpower can be defined as the following. So take a listen. The ability to delay gratification, resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals. That’s a really big one, are you able to delay gratification in the moment for something you want more in the future? The best example of this is the famous marshmallow study by Walter Michelle. Decades ago, that has been replicated many times. There’s a great YouTube video about this online. But this ability to delay gratification and resist short term temptations in order to meet long term goals. So the marshmallow study is where they had preschoolers in a room with a marshmallow. And the researcher told the little kid Oh, I need you to not eat this Marshmallow, I’m gonna have to step out of the room for just a few minutes. But if you can stay here, but not eat the marshmallow, then when I return, I’m going to happy and I’m going to have another treat for you, you can have the marshmallow, then I’ll have a better treat for you even you know when I get back. And then the experiment is to watch what the preschoolers do with that Marshmallow, while the researcher is out of the room. And the videos are hilarious, because it just shows the mental and physical gymnastics, these kiddos go through to try and keep themselves from eating the marshmallow. And you see delayed gratification in action. And you see also the limits of delayed gratification and how some kiddos just pop that marshmallow right into their mouth. Almost immediately, as soon as the researcher leaves the room and others who they try and distract themselves. They try and talk to the marshmallow, they try and look the other way, pretend the marshmallow isn’t there, all of these efforts to delay gratification, so that they can get the larger reward later, instead of eating that marshmallow immediately. And then of course, what they found is that those those kiddos who were able to delay gratification, and resist eating that marshmallow immediately that this had carry on effects over time. They perform better in school, they perform better in their careers, they had more earning potential. Now there has been some question about whether there were socio cultural


Dr. Melissa Smith 8:56
impacts that were also at play with this study. But the findings seem to be fairly robust, and have kind of stood the test of time and replication. And so the take home message from the marshmallow study, which is really clever and entertaining, so if you get a chance to watch some of the some of the YouTube videos, you should because it’s just kind of cute is this ability to delay gratification and resist short term temptations in order to meet long term goals has positive effects for you in many other areas of your life. Okay, so that’s the first part of the definition of willpower. The second component is the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse. So you have an unwanted thought. Can you challenge that? Can you override that unwanted thought feeling or impulse that’s the second part of that definition. The third component is the ability to employ a cool cognitive system of behavior rather than a hot emotional system. And so it’s kind of this ability to calm yourself down to keep a cool head, rather than get getting reactive, rather than getting emotionally and behaviorally reactive. And then the fourth component of that is conscious effortful regulation of the self by the self. So this is what we think about when we think about emotional regulation, that you’re intentional about emotional regulation, rather than being emotionally reactive, and being on an emotional roller coaster. And that’s a big key to willpower. And then the last definition of willpower is a limited resource capable of being deeply depleted. So that’s kind of that’s just kind of an additional piece there that willpower is a limited resource that is capable of being depleted. So none of us have an an inexhaustible well of willpower, right? So we’ve got a, we’ve got to kind of be protective of willpower. So let’s focus on what willpower is the limits of it, because right there, we know that it’s limited, it’s a limited resource, and how to harness it for good, and how to harness it for growth. So you know, the lack of willpower isn’t the only reason you might fail to reach your goals. willpower researcher, Roy Baumeister, he’s a psychologist at Florida State University, he describes three necessary components for achieving objectives, right, and willpower is only one of them. So first, he says you need to establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal, right? So are you motivated for change, and that is alluded to in one of those first quotes that I had talked about. So it’s not that some people have willpower and some dumb is that some people are ready to change and others are not. So do you have motivation for change. And then, also with that, so establishing motivation and setting a clear goal. So that’s the first component. The second component is you need to monitor your behavior to work that goal. And so this is something I talked about with accountability and alignment. If you don’t have daily and consistent accountability and alignment between your actions, your behaviors and your goal, it can be very difficult to reach that goal. I have a podcast coming up on accountability. So we’ll be talking about that more. And then that third component is willpower. So whether your goal is to lose weight, kick a smoking habit, study more or spend less time on Facebook, willpower is a critical step to achieving that outcome. So right, if we think about that third component of willpower, you got to be able to delay gratification, you got to be able to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse. And you’ve got to be able to cool down that cognitive system and calm yourself down. Rather than employ that emotion, that hot emotional system, you have to have emotional regulation. And you got to protect willpower because it is a limited resource. So there are a few things that I think can be really helpful to know about willpower, because I think there can be a lot of misunderstanding about willpower.


Dr. Melissa Smith 13:37
But I’ve already alluded to some of these with the definition, but it’s the ability to resist short term gratification in the pursuit of long term goals. It is correlated with positive life outcomes such as better grades, higher self esteem, lower use of substance abuse, greater financial security, and improved physical and mental health. So that’s good, more willpower usually is correlated with more positive life outcomes. So when willpower fails, exposure to an emotionally charged stimulus overrides one’s rational cognitive system, leading to impulsive actions. So that’s kind of what happens when we deplete our willpower. And one’s capacity for self control or willpower appears to be persistent. So children with better self control as preschoolers tend to have better self control as adults. And that’s one of the things that Michelle showed with the marshmallow experiment. Individuals with low self control show different brain patterns when presented with tempting stimuli. And one of the good ways one of the helpful ways to think about willpower is to think about it like a muscle is so it becomes fatigued with overuse So studies show that repeatedly resisting temptation drains your ability to withstand future enticements. So you’ve got to protect willpower, you’ve got to have periods of rest and recovery with willpower, and that willpower depletion has a physical basis. So individual individuals whose willpower has been depleted, have decreased activity in the brain region involved with cognition, and have lower blood glucose glucose levels, then do people whose willpower has not been diminished. So right like we’ve got some physiological changes happening relative to willpower depletion. And so it’s important to protect that and thinking about willpower as a muscle, I think can be a really helpful way to think about that. willpower depletion impacts a whole bunch of behaviors, including food intake, substance use, and abuse and purchasing behavior. Let’s see. Avoiding temptation and planning ahead are effective tactics for maintaining self control in the face of temptation. So this is where you want to be proactive, and you want to avoid situations that you know you have will be challenging for you. So this is where we think about the alcoholic avoiding the bar, right, that’s a perfect example of that. With the right motivation, you may be able to persevere, even when your willpower strength has been depleted. So motivation really matters, your values really matter, your sense of purpose really matter. Because like I said before, there are three components. And willpower is only one of them. Motivation is really important to your motivation. And your goals are really, really important. And then behavioral accountability is that second component. And so you never just rely on willpower alone, because that will leave you high and dry, especially if your willpower like muscle is depleted. And so you never just want to rely on willpower alone. And so because being depleted in one area can reduce willpower in other areas, it’s more effective to focus on a single goal at a time, rather than attacking a list of resolutions at once. So try and target one behavior at a time, rather than saying, I’m going to stop smoking, and I’m going to start exercising, and I’m going to you know, lose 10 pounds all at the same time. Like that would be disastrous, because you’re really expecting a lot of yourself in the willpower domain. And it’s it’s going to, it’s going to deplete your willpower really, really quickly. So just like muscles are strengthened by regular exercise, regularly exerting self control may improve your willpower strength over time. So that’s pretty cool. So now let’s think about some solutions to help you harness willpower for growth.


Dr. Melissa Smith 18:22
So these solutions come from the excellent book, the willpower instinct, how self control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. And this book is by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, she is a psychologist, she is also Incidentally, the author of the book, the upside of stress, I really like her work, she does some really great work. But let’s move into some solutions, I will link to her book. So you can get your hands on that if you would like to follow up. So the first solution is to think about willpower as three distinct powers. So she, she talks about willpower being three powers that help us to be a better version of ourselves. So the first the first power is I will power and the second one is I won’t power. And the third one is I want power. So let me explain those a little bit more. So the and she talks about these in terms of challenges. So I will power challenge is you know, what is something that you would like to do more of, or stop putting off because you know that doing it will improve the quality of your life. And so, you know, one, one solution, if we think about how can you harness willpower to help you grow, you could choose one of these challenges, but think about it in terms of Have I willpower, I want power and I want power. So you just pick one thing in one of these areas to work on. So that’s what I would recommend. So I will power is what is something that you would like to do more of, or stop putting off because you know that doing it will improve the quality of your life. So one example of that would be, I will get eight hours of sleep every night. So that means like, I’m going to go to bed by 10pm every night. And that could be a willpower challenge. The second one is I won’t power challenge. So what is the stickiest habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of because it’s undermining your health, happiness or success. So maybe one of this is an example of this would be I’m having too much alcohol and I like I’m I’m having, you know, one glass of wine has turned into two glasses of wine or three glasses of wine. And so this could be a sticky habit in your life that you recognize you need to give up or do less of, because it’s undermining your health, happiness or success. So you know, maybe it’s, you recognize that you’re numbing out at night, because you are drinking, you know, two to three glasses of wine. And it’s, it’s taking away from your relationships, or it’s impacting your sleep. And so what I won’t power challenge would be, I’m going to cut back on the wine at night, or I’m going to not have the wine at night. So instead of the wine, maybe it’s I’m going to have some lemon water, or I’m going to have a Lacroix or I’m going to have something else. So you know, it’s a sticky habit, but you can replace that with something else that is not undermining your health in the same way. And then the next, the next power challenge is that I want power. So what is the most important long term goal you’d like to focus your energy on, and then what immediate want is most likely to distract you or tempt you away from this goal. So if you think about an important long term goal you’d like to focus your energy on, and then what gets in the way of that. So maybe it’s maybe you have a big goal of, you know, what I want to write, I want to finish, I want to write my book. And one of the things that you recognize is that time on social media distracts you and pulls you away from this goal. And so one of your power challenges your I want power challenge is that every day you need to write for, you know, a certain given a certain amount of time before you get on social media. And so you’re putting your most important goal that I want in front of the distraction or the temptation that pulls you away from that goal. So that would be an example of the I want power challenge. So I do think solution, one of thinking about willpower as three distinct powers can be really helpful to kind of help you distinguish willpower a little bit more.


Dr. Melissa Smith 23:19
Okay, so now let’s think about solution to, which is to track your willpower choices. And again, this is from the willpower instinct. So for at least one day, try to notice every decision you make related to your willpower challenge. So right, we talked about the willpower challenges in solution one, so for one day, notice every single decision you make related to your willpower challenge. So these can be decisions in support of your goal. It could be in, it could be decisions that undermine your goal, but just track everything because it’ll offer you a lot of great insight. So for example, if one of your, your willpower decisions is I will power challenge to say like, I’m going to exercise consistent consistently for 30 minutes, five to six times a week. And on a day that you are planning to exercise, you. You notice that okay, I didn’t pack my exercise clothes for the gym. And then I made an excuse to not exercise and I said, Oh, I’ll exercise later, or I didn’t set the alarm or I said I’ll get to a later or you know, so like, what were the excuses that you made? Or you notice so maybe you did exercise and you’re like okay, I packed my gym clothes in my backpack and I had my water bottle all ready to go or I called my friend and I I met him at the gym, and I signed up for a group fitness class. So, you know, those decisions can be decisions that support your willpower challenge those decisions can be decisions that undermine your willpower challenge. So, either way, we want you to track all of those decisions throughout the day, because it’ll give you really good insight about where you are staying on track and where you’re getting off track. Okay, solution three, meet your two minds. And again, this is from the willpower instinct, for your willpower challenge, describe your two competing selves. So for example, what is the impulsive version of you want, and what does the wiser version of you want, and this can be really good. And it can be very illuminating to be able, you know, so that that part of you that that wants to delay gratification, and then that part of you that doesn’t want to so that impulsive part of yourself? And then that, that other part of yourself. So what’s the conversation between the two minds? What are the excuses? What are the rationalizations? What are the arguments in service to your goals and to your values, that can be very, very helpful for understanding what’s going on for you. And this can be very similar to the concept of the wise mind that we talk about in dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT. So if you think about a Venn diagram, and you know, we think about the one circle being the emotional mind, we think about the other circle being the logical mind. And then in the middle of those two circles, is a third circle. And that circle is the wise mind. And the overlap between the emotional mind and the logical mind is the wise mind. And that’s where we really want to reside. And so with solution three, meeting your two minds can really help you look at these two competing selves. And it can kind of help you step away from the emotions of that tug of war, and just look at what’s happening as a curious observer, and it can bring perspective. So that’s the value of this exercise to be able to see more clearly what’s happening in your mind, and to be able to see like, Oh, yeah, I actually do want to exercise for my help. Even though I’m tired right now, or even though, you know, I, I’d like to, you know, go home and watch Netflix. This goal actually is in keeping with my values, and with


Dr. Melissa Smith 27:57
kind of my larger purpose. And so if you can take that time and slow yourself down, it can allow perspective, and that can be really helpful. So also recognizing that willpower is a biological instinct that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves. And I think that’s a really good way to put that because, as humans, we can tend to be very hedonistic. And that’s just true. That’s part of that’s part of our biology. And so willpower is a biological instinct that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves. So ask yourself, what is the threat, or identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained? So you know, when you think about stress and self control, notice when stress strikes throughout the day, or the week and watch what happens to your self control. So this, this can be really helpful to really pay attention to your your stress triggers, and what happens to self control in response. So do you experience cravings? Do you lose your temper? Do you put off things you know, you should do? So when I get frustrated, it’s very easy for me to go to numbing behaviors, that’s something that I totally recognize about myself. And so since I have that awareness, the commitment that I have to make to myself is I’m going to stay engaged, I’m going to stay present, and I’m not going to go to those numbing behaviors. And so recognize what those you know, first of all, you know, recognizing how stress shows up for you, and then recognizing what those red flags are for you. So for some people, might be getting caught in a scroll hole on social media, it might be mindless eating, it might be losing your temper, it might be procrastination. So we want to start to recognize the red flags so that you can catch yourself and kind of bring yourself back back on track. So then let’s look at solution for and that is to breathe. So that can slow down the physiological arousal, and help you to think things through and move into alignment with your goals and your motivation. So one of my favorite paced breathing exercises is box breathing. And so you just imagine a box, and along each side of the box, you do a different exercise. So the, the along the fourth, or sorry, along the first edge of the box, you take four counts, to inhale. And then the second edge is four counts to hold. Along the third edge is for breath, or four counts, exhale. And along the last edge of the box is four counts hold. So four counts, inhale, four counts hold, four counts, exhale, four counts hold. So this is commonly known known as box breathing, square breathing. Sometimes in military, it’s known as tactical breathing. And it’s very, very effective. So that’s solution four. And then solution, five is a five minute green will power fill up. And this can be so effective, but it’s getting active outdoors. So even just a walk around the block, can help to reduce stress, improve mood, and boost motivation. Go out and sit on the front porch, go out and sit on the back porch, go on a quick walk around the block, this can make a big difference for helping you to kind of get out of your head. So I work clinically with individuals with eating disorders, there’s a lot of behavioral change a lot of requirement to in it to employ willpower. And one of the things that we talk about is, you know, when they’re, when they’re dealing with an urge is to go take a walk around the block, or to go out on the front porch, go out on the back porch, you know, getting outside can make a big difference, even just for a few minutes, it can really help. And then solution six, undo the effects of sleep deprivation, sleep deprivation, with a nap or a good night’s sleep.


Dr. Melissa Smith 32:57
So when you’re tired, it’s going to deplete your willpower. It just it really will. And so one of the ways that you can protect your willpower is by getting enough sleep. But taking a nap getting a good night’s sleep can make a big difference. And then solution seven is to relax to restore your willpower reserve. So again, lie down and breathe deeply. And let the physiological relaxation response help you recover from the demands of self control and daily stress. And a really simple way to do this is through meditation. So daily meditation, even 10 minutes of meditation with a meditation app can be really very effective for restoring your willpower reserve. Even just laying down quietly and closing your eyes can help to repeat your willpower reserve. So there you go. There are seven solutions to help you leverage willpower for growth and use it really effectively as you pursue what matters in your life. So head on over to the website to check out the show notes with all the great resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-64 one more time, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-64. And I will link to the great book, the willpower instinct, how self control works, why it matters and what you can do to get more of it by Kelly McGonigal PhD. I’ll also link to another article with some of the research that I discussed in this podcast and of course I’m social. I’m on Instagram @drmelissasmith, I’d love to connect with you there. And of course you can find the podcast on my website at the website that I just listed. I’m also on iTunes and Spotify. I’d love it. If you provided a review there. It helps people to find me. I so appreciate your willingness to do that. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.


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