During a recent talk on how to change a habit, a woman asked, "Where does lack of willpower figure into this? I mean, I want to change my eating and exercise habits, but I'm just too lazy."
I'll tell you at the end of the blog how I answered her question. For now, think of how many people, like the questioner above, believe they must exert super-human effort to get themselves to do what they would really like to do. But do you have to be a super-hero with awesome willpower to change a habit? Or is there another way?
Willpower is "using only the thought of your motivators to guide your behavior." If your motivator is "lose weight to avoid diabetes," strong willpower would mean you could use this thought to control your eating behavior even in a restaurant that scorns the idea of portion control. You could sit in front of a bowl of pasta large enough to feed a small third-world country, decide to eat only half of it, and then do it. Now that's willpower!
Yeah, right. How many people can really do that? Study after study has demonstrated that most people just eat what's put before them. Instead of eating mindfully, we sink into a trance state, automatically shoveling food into our open mouths whether it tastes good or not. In one study, people even ate extra-large portions of stale popcorn because...well, it was there.
So, if you are like most people, you probably need to back up your willpower with "changepower." "Changepower" is a word I've coined to describe all those outside resources that strengthen willpower--things like support groups, healthy environments, helpful friends, and wise plans and strategies. I hadn't realized that psychologists were now using a different term for virtually the same thing--"the extended will."
"Extending your will" means figuring out how to arrange your world to support your desired change. You consciously choose people, places, and things to keep you on your chosen path. You might "distribute" your willpower to a support group or to a good friend and give them permission to help you change. These decisions create a "scaffolding" that holds you up when you feel weak.
To "extend your will" in the above example, you might:
- Take one look at your food and ask the waiter for a "to-go" carton. Before you eat, you carefully put part of your portion into the carton.
- Ask your friend to divide a pasta dish and a salad with you before you order.
- Ask your spouse to remind you to eat sensibly by pre-arranged signal.
- Recall the guidelines of your healthy-eating support group.
- Decline the dinner invitation, knowing you can't resist temptation.
Here are other examples of using your extended will to make changes:
- You decide beforehand that 10% of your paycheck will go automatically into your savings account or IRA via direct deposit.
- You study in the library where there are fewer distractions.
- You put out your exercise clothes the night before.
- You join a support group.
I love the term, "extended will," because it reframes the whole idea of "getting help." You're not "getting help with a problem," you are "extending your will." You're not turning over your will to a support group, you are "distributing your will" so that the group can help you reach your goals.
In fact, many people you admire for their steely willpower may just be experts at using the extended will. They've arranged their world to channel their actions in their desired direction.
So what did I say to the worried questioner? I replied, "Laziness can be helpful! If you make the right thing to do the easy thing to do, you'll need much less willpower." Readers, I would say the same to you--extend your will, and make the right thing to do the easy thing to do.
© Meg Selig.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may be interested in my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more tidbits on willpower, habit change, and healthy living, follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter.
"Using only the thought..." Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), p. xix.
"Scaffolding." Heath, J. & Anderson, J., "Procrastination and the Extended Will," here:
"Stale popcorn." For this and many other examples, see Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating (Bantam-Dell, 2007).
See also PT blogger, Timothy Pynchyl's blog on this topic here.