Willpower Project 9 of 11: Don’t Read This Chapter. The Limits of “I won’t” power.

This is part nine of my willpower project tracking my progress through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Jump back to part one if you want to start at the beginning.

Noticing Social Influences:
Chapter 8 was all about the ways in which others impact our willpower. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that I spent more time alone last week than I usually do. My wife was out of town and we’d just moved, so I took the week as an opportunity to connect with myself, doing more reading and taking more time to be by myself than I typically have time for. I noticed that my willpower isn’t particularly higher when I’m alone, but it takes on a different flavor. My decision making is much less filtered by other concerns. In some ways this is positive because I was able to very independently flex my schedule to make time for additionally reading, but I also had less accountability to eat well because no one was looking over my shoulder and I felt a decreased sense of responsibility. This reduced sense of responsibility made it easier to let dishes pile up in the sink.

The additional time spent alone also served to highlight the time I had that was influenced by others and my experiences definitely aligned with the concepts that McGonigal outlines. I am definitely more easily influenced by people I am close to. When my coworkers get off topic it is easy for my concentration to drift along with them, but if I’m writing in a coffee shop the conversations of strangers have almost zero impact on my ability to focus.

I also noticed the social impacts while at the gym. The people surrounding me have an impact on how much time and focus I give to warming up. When people were warming up and stretching very intentionally I noticed that I was more diligent in my own warm-up, regardless of the posted workout that day. When people were less focused in their warm-up routine, my focus drifted as well and I warmed up less carefully as a result. Luckily this wasn’t associated with any injuries or difficulties this last week, but it is definitely something I will continue to be mindful of. Warming up intentionally is a nice bite-sized “I will” challenge.

In terms of using visualization to leverage positive social impact I only had one experience where I did this intentionally: job hunting. Searching for a new job (across the country no less) has been a consistent “I will” challenge for me even though it hasn’t seen much attention in these posts. This last week, now that we’ve moved, I’ve been able to dedicate more time to finding a job and I’ve encountered some blocks that make me want to stop looking. In these moments I’ve worked hard to maintain my willpower, and this week I intentionally visualized how my wife would react positively as I applied to each possible position. This wasn’t the only technique that I leveraged, but it definitely helped me keep my long term goals in mind when things got difficult.

Chapter 9: The Limits of I Won’t Power

Quick! Don’t think about purple elephants!
It’s all you can think about now, right? That’s the essence of Chapter 9. When we work really hard to suppress thoughts, ideas, or emotions we can’t actually do it and we spend more time thinking about those things we’re trying to suppress. This is all well and good when it’s purple elephants, but it’s more difficult if you’re trying to suppress an impulsive thought.

The paradox occurs because while one part of our brain (the operator) is working on thinking about everything that is non-purple-elephant, the monitor portion of our brain is running scans to make sure we’re not thinking thinking about those elephants. We get a series of signals along the links of “am I thinking about purple elephants? No? Ok, good. How about now?” It turns out that while we’re doing these checks we’re actually thinking about those elephants. The same goes true for that cake you’re trying to resist, or that pair of shoes you’re trying not to buy. If suppressing your impulsive thoughts doesn’t work, what do you do to avoid temptation?

McGonigal’s answer to this dilemma mindful acceptance. There are some specific variations of mindfulness and non-attachment that help us deal with ideas that we want to suppress, but it can be boiled down to the idea that we should notice our feelings without judging them, and disconnect our thoughts from our actions. Just because you have the thought, doesn’t mean you have to take the action. This is really the entire essence of the book, and could summarize McGonigal’s entire definition of willpower. We have impulsive thoughts all the time, and our willpower is our ability to differentiate thought from action. I want to eat a lot of chocolate when I’m bummed out because sugar and fat trigger dopamine, but I use my willpower to make a different choice that is more in line with my long term goals. My midbrain activates one thought, and then my prefrontal cortex overrides that impulse with a rational command. I think one thing, and then I do another thing.

Specifically for this week I’ll be focusing on one of the experiments from Chapter 9, and that is swapping our willpower challenge from an issue of “I won’t” to “I will.” An example of this would be turning the statement “I won’t eat refined sugar” to “I will eat foods X, Y, and Z.” The research on this shows that by framing our choices positively we build more confidence and more long term success. If we’re constantly thinking about what we can’t have we form very intense cravings that are difficult to ignore, and when we do give in to our cravings, we indulge to a greater extent. This has an educational component as well. Instructing a student to resist negative behaviors is less effective than encouraging them to replace the negative behavior with a positive one. Instead of “don’t blurt out in class” the correction should be “when you have something to say, raise your hand.” The student can focus their “I will” power in order to encourage positive behaviors, just like focusing on “I will eat more carrots” helps me avoid chocolate.

This chapter is particularly helpful to me as, despite reading everything, I still tend to think about using my “I won’t” power as a first response. I look forward to seeing how switching to an “I will” focus changes my behavior.

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