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Using Willpower: Work or Fun?

If you think "fun," you'll need less willpower.


Often we think of "willpower" as something that requires super-human effort, determination, and grit.  But using willpower can be fun!  Honestly! Research says so! And it's all in how you think about it.

In a series of experiments that I'll dub "the sucking-candy studies," researchers Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszeski explored how people's perceptions of whether a task was "work" or "fun" affected their self-control.  Participants in both groups were asked to hold a piece of candy in their mouth for 5 seconds, remove it, wait, and then repeat the process multiple times.  Then both groups were given access to as much candy as they wanted while they did other tasks.  

It turns out that study participants who perceived the task as "an obligation to work" ate significantly more candy after the first part of the experiment.  The group who thought the task was "an opportunity to have fun" ate much less.   

Many studies have shown that certain self-control activities can deplete a person's stores of willpower.  But apparently, that might only happen when you perceive that activity as requiring "work," especially work imposed on you by someone else.  If you frame it as "fun," you won't feel depleted later; in fact, you may even feel more vital.  The "sucking-candy study" underlines the truth of John Milton's famous saying, "The mind is its own place and can make hell of heaven or heaven of hell."

So, how could you enjoy the process of resisting temptation?  First, as always, choose your own motivator for change, a reason to change that you can cherish and that's meaningful for you.  Second, decide on your own goal, including your own standard for success.  These two choices in themselves will give you vitality and motivation

The next step: Think fun! Build a mindset that helps you see your habit change as "an opportunity to have fun." Here's one way to do it:  Every time you catch yourself using the words, "must," "need to," "have to," and "should," replace those dreadful words with empowering words like "want to," "get to," "choose to," and "could." 

Examples: Change "I have to exercise" into "I get to exercise." Change "I have to eat less" into "I want to eat less so I can have more energy."  Change "I must clean my desk" into "I could clean my desk."  Change "I have to change" into "I choose to change."

If you practice this simple word switch, you'll quickly see how you can create a mind switch that encourages your change rather than dragging it down.

You can also build fun into your plan for change.  You could create a game to help you change.  You could create a "success story of the day" to tell a friend.  You could create a reward system. You could whistle while you work.

"Fun" is just one element of motivation, to be sure.  Still, the more you add excitement and zest to your habit change motivator, your mindset, and your method, the more you are likely to see it as an "opportunity to have fun"--and to achieve the results you want as well.

(c) Meg Selig.  All rights reserved.

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here.  You can visit my website here.  Twitter handle: megselig1.

Sources:  "Could Learning Self-Control Be Enjoyable?":

For the original article, see this link.