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Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

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Did you ever set out to exercise 3 days per week, but stopped after the second day, because you couldn’t convince yourself to go to the gym anymore?

Did you decide to go on a diet (for God knows how many times) and couldn’t refrain from eating that forbidden cookie?

Did you set you alarm for 6:30 in the morning and found yourself hitting the snooze button again and again instead of instantly jumping out of bed?

No matter how much willpower you’ve employed in those situations, it apparently wasn’t enough to stop you at the right time.

Truth is, willpower is the worst approach in such cases. There’s a much better alternative to willpower.

Imagine the following scenario:

It’s Friday night. You’re going home after a long, hard week and you’re really hungry. All you can think of is getting your hands on food as soon as possible.

Suddenly, you walk by a fast food restaurant and are lured by the smell. You know you should’t eat unhealthy food, but you instantly start having an inner dialogue. It goes something like this:

“Oh my gosh, that food smells so good…”
“Yeah, but I really shouldn’t. It’s not good for me. I promised myself I would only eat healthy food.”
“But it will take so long until I get home. I’ll starve to death. Maybe I could just grab a small bite of something.”
“Oh, geez, I don’t know if that’s a good thing to do. After all, everybody knows what stuff they put in the meals and that it’s not real food. Besides, I really need to lose that extra fat from my belly.”
“But one small portion will surely not count. After all, it’s been a hard week and I deserve a pat on the back. One meal will certainly get unnoticed. And everything looks and smells so delicious…”

In that moment the fight is lost.

What just happened?

You witnessed a confrontation between the voice of ration and that of emotion. This time emotion won the fight. And it wasn’t just this one time. As it turns out, emotion is responsible for most of our decisions and ration does its best to justify our behavior after we’ve made up our minds.

Psychology and Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely explains that willpower has its limits. It’s just like a battery that loses some of its energy every time ration beats emotion. He calls the phenomenon Ego Depletion.

This basically means that we can only make a limited number of decisions based on willpower. And there are many factors which influence this number, like one’s degree of mental and physical fatigue, visceral activation, stress, cognitive load, etc.

Our willpower is therefore unreliable on the long run when it comes to making decisions.

So what’s the alternative to willpower?

Conditioning our brain to trigger desired emotional responses.

Emotions will eventually override willpower. No matter how strong or rational we believe we are, our emotions will take over at some point and that’s when everything will fall apart.

You will have that cookie. You will skip your workout. You will sleep in. You will do all those things you decided not to do, if you don’t learn how to condition your brain.

Conditioning the brain means associating pleasant emotional responses with performing the desired action and unpleasant ones with doing the opposite.

Basically, you train yourself to feel pleasure when you do the things which you know you should do and pain when you think of giving in.

How do you condition your emotions?

The brain learns by association. It loves to associate emotions to behaviors or gestures, mental images and sounds, body postures and the like. It did that our entire life and it keeps doing it.

The associations which were repeated most of the time got learned best. There are really powerful connections established within the brain which trigger corresponding responses.

So what you need to do is associate the desired behavior to a really good feeling.

You do that in two ways.

The first way is to get yourself in a very good state prior to doing what you want and seek to maintain it until you finish. When done, you should reinforce the behavior with a strong feeling of accomplishment.

The second way is to do a mental rehearsal of this process. You get yourself in a great state and you imagine doing your desired behavior. This approach works very well too, because the brain doesn’t really tell the difference between imagination and reality. The only condition for this to work is to imagine things as vividly as you can and to involve all your senses, just as you would if you were doing it for real.

It’s very important to get in a good state and amplify it as much as possible. You can do that by remembering a time when you felt terrific and experienced really intense pleasure. Or you can imagine having accomplished something you truly desire and feel the corresponding pleasure.

But we’re not done yet.

The next step is conditioning your brain to feel pain when you’re about to do what you shouldn’t do. This is crucial, because otherwise you will end up relying on willpower.

What you need to do is to imagine the worst thing that could happen if you don’t achieve your goal. Really push your imagination and figure out a very scary outcome. Something which is unacceptable to you. Amplify that feeling as much as you can.

Now associate it mentally with doing what you’re not supposed to. Associate pain even with the thought of doing what you’re not supposed to. Rehearse that until you feel pain just by thinking about not sticking to your new habit.

That should do the trick and help you make conscious emotional decisions in the future without having to rely on willpower and getting your ego depleted.

This pattern will be reinforced with every repetition, so it will get easier in time. You may have some difficulties in the beginning, when the association is still weak.

If you face temptation in the future, avoid the inner dialogue at all costs. It will only lead to depletion or it will make you give in.

Over To You

Do you have a new behavior that you keep trying to implement but can’t seem to gather enough willpower to start? Tell me about it in the comment section below.

Further Reading

If you made it so far, you probably found the article interesting :). Your friends will probably like it too, so help them out by sharing it.

In case you want to know more about Ego Depletion and how humans use emotions and ration when making decisions, I recommend reading the following two studies:

1. Dan Ariely on Ego Depletion
2. McCombs study on emotional buying decisions

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