Tuesday Psych Post ~ The Myth of “WillPower”
“It’s not that some people have will power and some don’t. It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.” ~ James Gordon
Have you ever wondered why it’s can be so hard for some people to change their habits? Or better yet, have you ever tried to change your habits and haven’t been successful?
For example, say you’ve said that you’re going to start waking up early to go to the gym. You set your alarm, get your gym bag ready, place the bag next to your bed and set the coffee maker for 6 am. The next morning, what do you do?
You hit the snooze 5 times. After the fifth time, you just shut it off and say, “Forget this. I’ll go tomorrow.” After 4 more attempts at this, you finally cede to the notion that you’re not going to go to the gym in the morning.
Now what are the reasons why this attempt at change failed? Is it because you didn’t have a strong enough “Why” to change? Possibly – but I know enough people that absolutely want to change, feel disgusted with themselves, but still won’t wake up.
Is it because their environment isn’t set up for them to succeed? No, they have done everything in their power to change their environment and set it up for success, but that’s not helping with getting out of bed.
Is it because they don’t have enough energy in the morning and therefore need to fix their cortisol levels and assist their adrenal glands? Again, this is definitely a possibility as “adrenal fatigue” or low cortisol can make it feel impossible to get out of bed. Although this is the most plausible reason, let’s look a little deeper.
If you look a little deeper, the fact of the matter is that you’re staying up too late the night before. And although you “try” to go to bed earlier, you consistently go to bed after midnight and yet continue thinking that you lack will power with waking up.
The reality is that you don’t have any issues with willpower and waking up – you have issues with going to bed on time – and most likely, it has nothing to do with willpower. Instead the issue is that you have a conflict of interest where staying up is currently more powerful than going to bed early.
Let me explain.
In a study completed by Ellen Langer and Laralyn Thompson, participants were given a list of traits that were meant to sound undesirable. These traits included gullible, grim, rigid, etc. They were then asked of those traits, which ones they had tried to change in the past and whether or not they had been able to change the traits.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to evaluate traits that were meant to sound desirable. These traits included trustworthy, seriousness and consistent.
What the participants didn’t realize is that those “undesirable” traits are just the negative connotations on the “desirable” traits. For example, this means that trustworthy is the positive sounding side of gullible, serious is the positive sounding side of grim, etc.
What Langer showed is that when the individual had a “conflict of interest” that person was less likely to change. What was this “conflict of interest?”
A conflict of interest occurred when the person had tried to change the negative sounding trait, such as being rigid, but highly valued being consistent. This lead to a “conflict of interest” and more often than not, an unsuccessful attempt at changing that trait. Without any conscious thought, the person feared becoming less consistent and therefore remained rigid.
Going back to the exercise example, it’s not that the person doesn’t want to exercise or hasn’t set up their environment for success, or even that they have “low morning energy.” They simply just didn’t get enough sleep to wake up at that earlier time. Why is that?
More often than not, it’s that the person has a “conflict of interest.” This can range from something personal, such as, “The night is the only time I have for myself – so I’m not giving that up,” to, “By the time I put the kids to bed, it’s so late and then I have so many things to do.”
In other words, the conflict of interest with going to bed earlier can range from some “me time” to being a good parent. There are obviously more reasons why someone can have issues with going to bed earlier, but more often than not – it has NOTHING to do with willpower in the morning.
Instead the inability to wake up has more to do with valuing their nighttime activities more than their early morning activities.
So what are some ways to move past this seemingly dichotomous decision?
This is where self-knowledge starts to help. In psychology, there is a process called unbundling – which is taking a specific habit and separating it into two or more sub-habits. If you’ve read this far, then you know that with waking up earlier (or any other habit you want to change), has characteristics which we deem as desirable (sticking to your word, losing weight, etc), along with characteristics that we deem as undesirable (being overwhelmed with chores, spending less time with your children, etc).
In order to start to move past this dichotmous decision, you will have to “unbundle” those positive aspects from those negative aspects.
After you unbundle the good from the bad aspects of changing the habit, you can decide which aspects you want to keep – spending time with your child – and which ones you want to get rid of – the “need” to do finish the laundry at 11 pm, instead of going to bed.
The bottom line is that whenever you add something to your life, such as a new habit of waking up and exercising, other aspects of your life will have to change. These changes don’t necessarily have to be bad, and in fact can be good – you can now pay an extra $10 per week to have your laundry done for you during the week.
The key though is to become aware of what is truly standing in your way and stop the negative self-talk and weak “willpower” image of yourself. Weak willpower is usually nothing more than a conflict of interests.
Also know that maybe, you can’t make any HUGE changes, such as waking up early EVERY morning. But you can wake up/go to bed early a couple of times per week.
As Peter McWilliams said:
“The word discipline comes from two very nice words: discipulus, meaning pupil, and discere, to learn. Discipline, then, is devotion to learning.
I like to think of discipline not as forcing yourself to do without (the austerity school), but as keeping your attention focused on what you want.”