So you think you need willpower?

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Did you hear about Blue Monday, the day we’re all supposed to be feeling blue because our New Year’s resolutions have been broken and the summer is still far off? Did you bewail your lack of willpower and look enviously at the likes of Mark Zuckerberg who reportedly completes every new year’s resolution like clockwork.

boat speed regulators croppedDon’t despair. The latest research shows why our willpower lets us down and also how much we can build up our willpower so we have more to fall back on. But before you head off to the will-gym to turn yourself into the willing equivalent of Silverster Stallone, reflect for a moment on how you plan to use this new found willpower.

Willpower – the energy of self-control

I often experience an upsurge of inspiration after the summer and the winter break, yet three weeks down the line I remember that I don’t get up at six to run around the block, and that I might be busy writing a book and a blog, but I need days where hanging on the sofa reading what others have written feels far more attractive! I paid for this wisdom with my health. After a threatening burn-out a few years ago I learned that I need to match my ambition to my energy levels, sometimes moment by moment. If there’s lots of energy, I can work with a prolonged and deep focus, but if there is no energy then using my willpower to push through just becomes destructive.

So while I am really excited about the latest will-research, presented by Professor Roy Baumeister in ABC’s All in the Mind programme, I also think that in today’s push push society I would like to sound a note of caution. In brief, Baumeister’s research shows that willpower is like the energy that helps us to exert self-control, which we do about half of our waking hours. And that can be anything from small teacup-like decisions to biting your tongue to avoid insulting your boss. He also says that it depletes as the day wears on, citing a really worrying bit of research with parole judges in South Africa. Every time we use our will energy it depletes the glucose levels in our body. I recommend you Listen to the show to hear more about his research.

Self-control can make or break a pattern of behaviour

But first a word or two about self-control, which comes in many forms. Self-control can stop us from doing things that are bad for us, like smoking and drinking, or it can help to ignore distractions, keeping our noses to the grind. Self-control makes for a better community, where we modulate our behaviour to the extent that we all rub along happily together. But at its worst, self-control can become repressive, turning us into conditioned robots rather than the warm blooded, choice making, independent thinkers we’re allowed to be. And so when we become aware of destructive patterns in our lives, we may even be using self-control not to do what we’ve always been told to do! Clients are often surprised at how tired they become in the course of a therapeutic process. Now you know why!

Managing your resources

So whatever the reason for self-control, be it positive or negative, we use willpower to execute it. The next step is to learn how to manage those resources. I already mentioned that you need to accept the natural ebb and flow of your energy and willpower levels. Are they consistent or are they haphazard? Learn to trust yourself and listen to your body. The ups will more than compensate the downs. You know that! And use Baumeister’s findings; if will-energy runs down as the day wears on then don’t plan important meetings or decisions for the end of the day, or if you want to have the edge over your opponent, do plan them late, but make sure you’ve managed your own resources as the day wears on. And if you’re running on empty by lunchtime then having some food and upping your glucose levels will generate a little will-boost. So if you feel your reasons for exerting self control are correct, and if you’re managing your willpower resources in a healthy way, you should be good. But if you’re not, then maybe there is yet another thing you need to consider. Love.

Choosing the right use of the will

The importance of the will was already stressed by Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, almost a hundred years ago. But he adds an important ingredient; love. He suggests we have two main drives; love and will. Everything else is derived from those two. The love impulse drives us to have relationships and to experience nurturing and caring. Will energy is more active, it propels us forward. According to Assagioli a healthy human being achieves a balance between these two drives; Will helping us to control our urges, and Love helping us to do that in a kind and helpful way. He emphasizes that the appropriate use of the will leads to choice, suggesting that sometimes we need to stop and reflect on our choices and redirect our will-energy, allowing it to then flow more naturally.

Another aspect is that he distinguishes are three kinds of will; strong will, skilful will and the will to do good acts. Strong will is the will you use to get behind a car and try to push it forward, with or without the handbrake on. Skilful will is sitting inside and turning the key! Skillful will often has more of a love/will balance, as well as the distance to stand back and come up with creative solutions.

The art of life is the balance between doing (will) and being (love), or do-be-do-be-do……!

The courage of doing a U-turn

And as well as learning to listen to the ebb and flow of willpower it is also important to explore what you are focussing your will-energy on. Maybe you have the will of an ox, but you’re always exhausted. Half-hearted projects or intentions rarely elicit the sustained and, in Assagioli’s words, the skilful use of willpower. Of course there are times in our lives where the going is tough, and where we have no choice but to use willpower to get us through. But sometimes we start out using our will-energy levels wisely, pursuing a goal that seems right, only to find that it wasn’t correct for us after all, or that it is too much too soon. Maybe we need to step back and let it stew a little longer, add a little love to the mix, or maybe we need to make a U-turn. However, we’ve been conditioned to ‘follow through’ and to finish what we started, and so we push on. I believe that sometimes the most courageous decision is to say ‘this doesn’t work, I made a wrong decision, and I can give myself permission to stop.’ Sometimes we need to be wise rather than just forceful!

Building up the willpower store

That said, both Assagioli and Baumeister agree that it is possible to build up your will-energy stores so that you have more to work with. We’ve learned that the unconscious use of willpower, the daily grind of pushing yourselves towards or away from things, depletes the energy stores. However, conscious ‘willing’ seems to work in the other direction. Meditation and reflection are ‘will’-exercises in the sense that they demand ‘will-energy’ to sit still and allow your mind to calm down. Assagioli also developed very practical exercises like willing yourself to sit or stand on a chair for five minutes a day. The more purposeless the activity, the better the result. Baumeister had his students focus on their posture and ‘will’ themselves to stand up and sit up at set times of the day. Performing these self-control exercises over a couple of weeks improved the performance on the exercise as well as subsequent exercises in the lab.

Above all, remember that life is a dance. That you can be kind to yourself and dance to the tune of do-be-do-be-dooo, saving your most difficult tasks and decisions for a time when you’ve rested and recuperated and are at your most ‘willing’.

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