I have always found the idea of willpower to be an interesting concept. Everyone seems to want more of it, and research would indicate there are many benefits to having it.[1,2] However, the idea of willpower also has an inherently negative connotation. You will have to fight against yourself in order to achieve something you want. Indeed, many people describe their experiences of trying to achieve their goals exactly this way. One of my clients who is working on a fitness goal recently said to me It is like there is a “battle within.” Every time I try to go to the gym the side that wants to go fights with the side that doesn’t want to go, and the side that doesn't want to go is usually stronger.
But what exactly is it that we are all fighting against? My client would say he was fighting against his own laziness. Being lazy is a negative self-attribution people often make when they don’t understand why they aren’t taking action toward something they want to or should be doing. Luckily, the field of psychology gives us a more precise ways to understand why we don’t always take the actions we’d like to. Research shows that decisions we make have a lot to do with how motivated we are to achieve something. When I asked my client if he would get out of bed and go to the gym in the morning if a thousand dollars was there waiting for him, he smiled sheepishly and said well of course.
Willpower and motivation, while related, are not the same thing. You need more willpower when there is less motivation. Willpower becomes important when we have competing things that we are motivated for. I like feeling warm and comfortable in my bed vs I like having a fit body. We derive pleasure from both, one gives immediate gratification, the other may seem like a pleasant but distant dream. It would seem that the magnitude of one goal should outweigh the other, but that’s not exactly how our decision-making process works. The further away a goal seems, the more likely we are to discount its value. The immediate one requires less effort the distant one not only requires effort, it requires giving up the more immediate pleasure. You begin to see why this is such a hard choice. At this point many people decide they need to increase their willpower to say no to the immediately pleasurable choice. Increasing your motivation for your primary goal, however, will get your further.
How can you do this? Below are five steps that have been shown to increase the likelihood of taking action toward a desired goal.
1) Declare yourself the winner ahead of time.
The first thing you need to do to increase your motivation is expect to win the battle. What you tell yourself matters. If you know it is difficult to get out of bed in the morning chances are you are expecting it to go the same way every morning. We tend to act on what we expect, not what we want. If you tell yourself you expect to fail it is unlikely that you will put forth all the necessary effort to change the behavior. No one is motivated by the expectation of failure. When you genuinely believe that you can win, you are more likely to put forth the effort and engage in the necessary steps (such as the ones below) that will help you win. If the goal is so big that you have excssive doubt, scale back to a smaller goal that you believe is doable.
2) Focus on the benefits of the action.
Rewards are what motivate us. The benefits of any goal you are trying to achieve are the rewards you are expecting as a result of your behavior. I will feel better and look great if I exercise. As you choose any action you engage in a cost-benefit analysis. Will my effort be worth the benefit I achieve? This is not an objective process but rather a subjective evaluation based on what is most active in your mind at the time you make the decision. When you focus on the benefits of what you want, you are focusing on the reward elements and making the benefits more available for this decision making process. Don’t wait until the moment of the decision to do this. If you wait until you are snuggled in bed and the alarm goes off to start trying to imagine the benefits of going to the gym you probably won’t get too far. The benefits of the nice warm bed are too immediate. You want to practice focusing on the benefits of your goal as far in advance as possible. It may take several days of work to get the benefits very active in your mind. Really think about why you have set the goal in the first place--what are all the things that will be different in your life, what will you be able to do when you achieve your goal, how much better will you feel about yourself? Write these down on a pad of paper next to your bed, read the list before you go to bed, then read it again before you get up in the morning.
3) Anticipate the obstacles.
There are almost always obstacles that get in the way of a new behavior. Old behavioral patterns act as barriers to change. Once you have a goal in mind and you know what the benefits are, anticipate what existing behaviors might get in the way. My client identified several obstacles that were preventing him from getting to the gym. When he tried to go in the morning, he would end up hitting snooze on the alarm clock and sleeping in, giving himself the out that he would go after work, and when he tried to go after work, he would get distracted by activities at home and then give himself the out of going in the morning. It was a bad cycle that he was having trouble breaking and it was preventing him from achieving his goal.
4) Generate a plan for getting around the obstacle.
Even if someone really knows what they want to do and is highly motivated to achieve it, not dealing with the obstacles can self-sabotage the best of intentions. We tend to be creatures of habit and many times the biggest obstacle to change is our current way of doing something, so we need a plan to do it differently. One obstacle for my client was he gave himself too many outs, by alternating between the possibility of going to the gym day or night, he was always able to justify putting it off for just a few more hours. After an assessment of his behavior he decided that going in the evening was more practical. The next obstacle to this was going home after work. Once there he got comfortable and distracted, and found it hard to leave again. The solution we devised was to take his gym clothes and a protein bar with him to work so that he could go straight to the gym. These solutions may sound simple and even obvious but for many people the key to what they are tying to achieve is often a few simple but significant changes. Having a plan to get around the obstacles increases your expectation of success and thus your motivation to act.
5) Visualize yourself implementing the plan and successfully taking the action.
Visual simulations have been shown to increase motivation and are effective at helping people achieve goals but only when people visualize the whole process not just the outcome. To successfully harness the power of visualization see your success from beginning to end. Start with taking the very first action, then see yourself bumping into the obstacle, then implementing your solution to get around the obstacle and then finally achieving the outcome. My client practiced seeing himself leave the house in the morning with his gym bag, then driving from work to the gym at night.
The first night my client did this he wasn’t even tempted to go home, he just knew it was the plan, one he felt confident he could achieve, and so he went with it. There was no willpower battle. He felt happy to be making progress on his goal, he left the gym that night feeling better about himself than he had in months.
3. Berridge, K.C. (2004). Motivation concepts in behavioral neuroscience. Physiology & behavior, 81(2): 179-209.
4. KM, L. and P. DA., (2010). Delay discounting and future-directed thinking in anhedonic individuals. Elsevier, 41: 258-264.
5. Amar Cheema, Rajesh Bagchi (2011). The Effect of Goal Visualization on Goal Pursuit: Implications for Consumers and Managers. Journal of Marketing, 75(2): 109-123.
Jennice Vilhauer, PhD is the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life and the developer of Future Directed Therapy.