Willpower 101

The topic of willpower always comes up for those of us who struggle with maintaining healthy weight, or want to quit smoking, or have any other “bad” habit we want to change.

The word “bad” is in quotes because of course those bad habits become habits in the first place by doing something for us that we like, and like a lot. I’ve heard smokers say, “It’s the only thing I do that’s just for me!”  And we may know that eating too much comfort food leads inevitably to weight we don’t want, weight we know we will have a hard time losing, but nonetheless, that bowl of ice cream does a wonderful job of providing comfort when we need it.

The fact is, willpower alone only works for people who don’t really need it, and don’t really rely on it.

It’s well established that the part of the brain responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex, which is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory, and solving abstract problems.

The experiment that started me thinking about this was done by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, with (as is usual with these experiments) undergraduate students. One group was asked to remember a two-digit number, and the second group was asked to remember a seven-digit number. Then they were asked to walk down the hall and choose a snack: chocolate cake or fruit salad.

Fifty-nine percent of the students trying to remember seven digits chose cake.  Only 37 percent of students who were trying to remembering the two digit numbers chose the cake.

What the results tell us is that the task of remembering numbers took up valuable real estate in the brain, and as a result the prefrontal cortex had no energy to spare for resisting a decadent dessert.  In other words, willpower is only strong when the prefrontal cortex is not otherwise engaged—it’s no multi-tasker.

But remember, in this study, 41 percent of the 7-digit number people did choose fruit salad over cake—they made a healthy choice without relying on willpower.  I’m willing to bet that most of the 41 percent are people who may eat the occasional dessert, but they don’t make a habit of it.

So if willpower doesn’t work for the habit-ridden rest of us, what will?

Well, it’s simple: we need to change our habits.  That’s easier said than done, of course, but people do make changes like these.  People do quit smoking, change their diets, maintain exercise programs, etc., until they become second nature.

So it can be done, in spite of the weakness inherent in willpower.  One way we can fight back is to recharge that willpower before we need to draw on it.

For many people with weight problems, the evening is a very difficult time.  A typical busy day for most people is full of challenges that deplete the reserves of the prefrontal cortex (remember, it’s working on memory, focus, and problem solving).  It’s easy then to come home to a relaxing glass of wine (which stimulates appetite), and, without noticing, eat enough at dinner to feed a family of four.

Instead, before going home, we could consciously choose to recharge the reserves we’ll need to get through the evening.  So, how do we do that, recharge the prefrontal cortex?  Well, before we go home to face temptation, we could listen to a meditation tape, do a relaxation exercise, go for a walk, go to the gym—everyone probably has a different answer to the question of what would best recharge the body, mind, and spirit.  It may not be easy to find the time, but it sure feels good when we do it!

Once we know how to resist falling prey to our bad habits, we can begin to re-craft our daily experiences, so those habits lose their power.  And yes, hypnosis works for habit change.  I confess I used to be helpless in the face of a cigarette or a bag of potato chips.  These days, neither cigarettes nor potato chips have any power over me—but in the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I am still whittling away at a laundry list of other temptations!

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