Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Some of My Favorite Ridiculous Advice About Willpower



In recent weeks I’ve taken to watching the Web (through a convenient Google Alert) for blog posts, pages, and articles on willpower, self-motivation, and self-control, and usually I find at least a couple of new ones (other than my own) to look at every day. Occasionally I’ll see a piece that does a very good job of talking about one or two pieces of the puzzle, and once or twice I’ve read ones that have plenty of good advice (I try to remember to link to those, when possible). Often, though, the person posting seems to have seized on one piece of information and drawn some conclusions that are … well, I’m going to have to say “ridiculous.”

A New York Times blog post suggested trying to strengthen willpower by brushing your teeth on the wrong side, because that takes extra effort and the thinking was that anything that takes extra effort is a good way to build willpower. A Psychology Today blog post proposed eating plenty of chocolate to help quit smoking. A recent article from Reuters suggested making lots of “bad” foods available in your house to improve your eating habits, on the idea that having more chances to resist those foods will always increase willpower.

And the ideas in these articles are usually not coming from journalists gone wild: they’re usually coming from scientists who get very involved with one aspect of willpower and make unscientific assumptions about how those aspects should be applied.

Building willpower is not difficult if you’re willing and you understand all the pieces, but it is complicated, and focusing on one piece of a complex problem to the exclusion of others is a dangerous approach. It’s like setting a house on fire to warm it more efficiently. Willpower, like any complex thing, is a balance.

In the above examples, the confusion seems to stem from not balancing the building of willpower with constructive habits and making good use of the willpower we already have. Yes, the more we use willpower, the stronger it gets. However, it’s also true that we have a limited capacity to exercise willpower, and the more struggles we put ourselves into, the sooner we’re likely to cave and start making bad choices. Fortunately, making good choices not only strengthens our willpower over time, it also gets us in habits that tend to make exercising willpower less of a struggle. Brushing our teeth on the wrong side or strategically placing bags of potato chips around the house does not aid us in making good choices: it’s just an artificial approach that can be used to demonstrate things in laboratories. And making bad food choices in order to make better smoking choices is a dangerous strategy because it is doing as much to erode our willpower and good habits, in a general sense, as it is to promote them.

I’ll cut in for a moment here to say that I surely don’t know every single piece of the puzzle either. For instance, I haven’t yet researched hypnosis, which if you go by the stories one hears can have some impressive effects. And I have a lot to learn about meditation, which has been shown in numerous studies (and in my own experience) to be profoundly supportive of the states of mind needed to exercise willpower or achieve goals. So certainly take everything I say with a grain of salt, too. But my goal on this site is to bring together knowledge about self-motivation from as wide an array of good sources as I possibly can, and having found many of those sources already, I am lucky enough to sometimes see where good studies are spawning bad ideas when other studies shed more light on the situation.

Back to the question of evaluating advice about willpower: fortunately, it seems to come down to a certain amount of common sense. If the advice involves making good choices, improving state of mind, or learning how to handle situations better, it’s probably good. And if it sounds too nutty to be true, it probably is.

Photo by KristopherM

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: