Have you ever suffered with self-sabotage when it came to accomplishing a goal?
When asked what is holding someone back from reaching their most prized goals, you may hear mentions of “lack of time” or “money”.
When push comes to shove, the friction behind goal achievement comes back to willpower.
Willpower is your ability to push through on something you know is right, or to act within your value system for your long-term benefit – when the impulsive body and mind are otherwise thinking “mmm that piece of cake looks good”.
Early victories in the understanding of “willpower” identified it as a reserve – a battery life that depletes through the course of the day as you’re challenged with thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions.
New scientific adaptations describe willpower as a muscle. The more you get used to doing “hard” things – the stronger the muscle becomes.
Moreover, the more you self-identify as having strong willpower – the more you will act to protect that identity.
In part one, I’m going to discuss how the willpower mind competes with the impulsive and irrational side of our brain.
As goal achievement requires changes in behavior, I’ll briefly look at the formula behind behavior change – developed by BJ Fogg, PhD, one of the foremost experts on the topic.
In part two, I’ll explore the physiology behind willpower and impulse and how the biology of stress is in direct conflict with willpower. Within this context, I then explore some of the latest insights on how to measure and strengthen willpower naturally – by directly promoting the physiology behind it in the first place.
There are biological reasons behind loss of willpower. We know where these decisions occur in the brain – and what the brain looks like when acting with willpower as opposed to acting with impulse.
We know that stress, addiction, anger, overstimulation, and distraction are enemies to willpower.
The causes of willpower loss immediately give insights to the solutions.
In order to improve willpower, one must lower stress, addictive behavior, anger, stimulation, and distraction. These are the key lifestyle factors behind willpower optimization.
Moreover, there are new ways to boost willpower indirectly – helping to put willpower limitations in new light.
Willpower and Goal-Accomplishment
Goal-setting is a tricky business.
Sometimes, when we focus on wanting something – we end up reinforcing our “lack” of that thing and the obstacles in the way of its accomplishment.
Because we are reminding ourselves of our lack and all the reasons why a goal hasn’t already been achieved – we sometimes succeed only in reinforcing our failure, and feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem.
It can be better to focus on what I “won’t” do – the things standing in the way of the willpower goal. And better yet, the “I want” that’s behind the goal in the first place.
Looking at the same goal with an altered lens, or alternative angle, can drastically improve the chances of success.
Small daily decisions add up to make or break our larger goals, whether we notice it or not.
Knowing this information can help us to first be more forgiving with ourselves, and second, to learn to predict and avoid the triggers for these often unconscious self-sabotaging behaviors.
The Competing Minds – Willpower Versus Impulsivity
Our brains naturally contain two competing minds.
There are many ways that people describe these two systems – but it comes down to the part of the mind that is impulsive (fear-based reactions, primal/animal needs) and the part of the mind that is controlled and self-aware (reflective, “pause and plan” functions).
Most of us are aware of these two functions of our brains, but we don’t always pay attention to when we use them and why.
A simple, yet powerful, first strategy is to give these sides of your brain a “self-label” – choosing playful names that resonate with you.
Name the Two Sides
For me, I like to think of the self-control part of my brain as the “freedom mind”, as freedom is my highest value – and reflected in my company mission to help individuals self-actualize their wellness goals and take personal responsibility for their health in order to make the world a happier and healthier place to live.
I think of the impulsive side of my brain as the “rat mind” in reference to primal urges, as well as getting out of the “rat race” as it applies to health and life. The naming of the sides makes the concepts real and visceral for me – I intuitively want to feed and protect the “freedom mind” and starve the “rat mind”.Researchers have also modeled labels for these competing sides of the brain.
The most notable is Daniel Kahneman. He named the two sides “fast” and “slow” and provided a number of cognitive experiments and models that proved the case.
Kahneman details much of the field’s work in the book Thinking Fast and Slow (view book) which boasts over two million sales and some 12,000 reader reviews at 4.6 stars.
The impulsive, knee-jerk brain is the “fast” brain, and the more reflective, “pause and plan” brain was referred to as the “slow” brain.
Was the work taken lightly? I don’t think so. Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work.
Kahneman’s work details how the brain speed comes with a tradeoff of more brain mistakes with false impulses, inferences, rationalizations, and judgments even when we know the fallacies exist.
The Rider and the Elephant
A more mainstream analogy given to the two brains is the “rider” and the “elephant”.
The concept of the rider and elephant was introduced by Jonathan Haidt, PhD, a social psychologist out of NYU-Stern. The analogy was detailed and popularized in Chip and Dan Heath’s popular book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (view book).
Here’s a short summary:
- The elephant is emotional, impulsive, and irrational. Given the enormous size of the animal, the elephant’s desires run the show by default.
- The rider is inevitably “along for the ride”, yet can delicately coax the powerful animal in the direction he or she needs.
- If the elephant is spooked by fear, stress, or anxiety, and has an emotional outburst – it’s going to do what it wants.
- The rider can tug the reins and deliberately shape the current and future path to keep the momentum moving forward to his destination.
- The rider can feed the elephant good food, give it a nice place to live, make sure it feels safe, and allow it to get a full night’s sleep before driving it over unexpected and tiring journeys.
The Benefits of Observation and Labeling Techniques:
The technique of naming the competing factions of the mind is rooted in meditation and mindfulness practice.
Giving a “label” to an internal tendency – “watching” yourself experience an emotion – inherently distances you from the emotion or tendency itself.
Taking an objective view of the situation gives us that mental “pause” we need to allow the slower, more rational mind to catch up.
Once caught up, we are able to remember our long-term goals, core values, and the positive images we have of ourselves that serve us best.
We make better decisions as a result.
Naming our tendencies can help make the emotional drives behind them tangible while you’re going through it, so you can be a humble observer of yourself experiencing an emotion or tendency that’s separate from “I”.
The immediate act of “labeling” mentally distances the emotion from “self”, and it allows the “self” to shine through and direct the show.
When you pause to notice how you’re feeling, the rider can retain control of the elephant. In my example, the “freedom mind” is able to shine through.
We readily give names to cars, boats, and houseplants – giving a name to these parts of your brain is no different – yet can be very useful to distance the tendencies of the elephant from where you want to go as the rider.
Use names that reflect love, joy, creativity, peace, reason, and optimism – as we are naturally pulled toward the best version of ourselves by these positive emotional states.
Use variations of these words in your internet passwords – embody these things in the art and colors in your home. Subtle environmental cues can make a big difference in triggering and maintaining the strength of your willpower mind.
Situations have infinite positive or negative connotations – and our human tendency is to see the negative.
You can “choose” to balance out the natural tendency toward worry with optimism, gratitude, and a “can-do” attitude.
It’s no wonder then that meditation and mindfulness practices remind us over and over again to “watch the breath”, “just observe what you feel”- and other powerful mental strategies.
Our mental labels are incredibly important, because we protect our sense of identity at all costs – even when presented with obvious evidence that runs counter to our beliefs.
Meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing strategies are profound and now backed by hard science, not just New Age mumbo-jumbo.
Yet, many of us have pigeon-holed these practices as fluff or only practiced by social or spiritual groups we may not personally identify with.
Sometimes the practices seem “too easy” and instead of practicing them, many of us search long and hard for the next, latest and greatest strategy – when simple breath and mindfulness practice can often do 80% or more of the “fix”.
The Willpower and Impulsive Minds are at Odds, Yet Need Each Other
If the first step is to recognize and name the competing minds, the second step is to understand that the two sides absolutely need each other.
Successful navigation between these two minds is to recognize that one is not good and the other bad – they both have their place in our lives.
Sometimes fighting against something only works to empower the very thing we’re looking to avoid – especially when framed in our minds as “good” or ‘bad”.
Instead of framing a situation as good or bad, frame it as “supportive of my goal’ versus “non-supportive of my goal”….and moreover, it’s essential to view progress as a reflection of your commitment to a goal and in terms of “good” or “bad” either.
By avoiding “good’ vs. “bad” or “behaved” vs. “naughty” – we avoid a host of mental fallacies where our brains work to “allow” us to be bad because “we’ve been so good” and so forth.
It avoids feelings of guilt, shame, and harsh self-criticism when we act off-course.
Why is this so important?
Well, when we feel guilty, shameful, or self-critical, our natural impulse is seek to feel better with the exact behaviors we’re looking to manage – sugar, salt, fat, sex, caffeine, alcohol, etc.
When we morally weigh something as bad, often it becomes seen as a suppressed reward that will eventually win out again.
I can’t overstate how important it is to frame success as an on-going goal commitment and just something you “do” as part of your identity – versus posing your self-talk as “I was so good”, or “You idiot, why did you go off-course again?”.
We have tendencies to weigh goals in black and white moral terms – yet most goal accomplishments do not present true moral dilemmas.
By weighting a goal in moral terms of “good” and “bad” behavior – we unwittingly set ourselves up for failure – as our brains will instinctively view the bad behavior in “reward” terms – and eventually we’ll look to “reward” ourselves for being so “good”.
The brain also falls into traps where it will make up for “bad” behavior with good behavior in some mythical future that never happens.
There’s a huge difference for instance in the weighting of “I can’t eat gluten” versus “I don’t eat gluten” – the first statement feels like a punishment, where as the second statement is more reflective of a positive identity with the habit.
Bonus Note on Eating Gluten: I use gluten as the example, because it is a goal we all can relate to as gluten causes leaky gut in all that consume it irrespective of an allergy or sensitivity – and therefore gluten consumption can become a gateway to a host of gut, brain, and immune problems.
Interestingly, Gluten has also has been shown to reduce blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain (1), which you’ll discover in part two will naturally reduce the willpower functions of the brain and favor emotional and impulse tendencies.
Plus, wheat breaks down into addictive, opiate-like compounds known as exorphins (2) that can also trigger their own immune reactions, or worse, the endorphin-like effect may mask discomfort and inflammation from existing reactions!
Choose Goals and Focus Carefully
Sadhguru, world-renowned spiritual teacher and author of Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy (view book), tells of a story where a man is told by a monk that he can have everything he ever wanted….
All he has to do is meditate quietly by the river until he no longer thinks about monkeys.
All his desires and dreams will be delivered if he is able to quiet the mind and never think about the tree-swinging primates.
Unfortunately, you may guess how this story goes…
All the man will ever get in his attempt to have everything he always wanted is monkey, monkey, and more monkey.
Focusing on “no monkeys” works only to achieve more monkeys. It’s a fool’s errand to fight the monkeys, as the monkeys will always appear. Trying to ignore them only reminds you that they are there.
You’ll get so close, and Bop! a half-eaten banana will hit you right on the head.
Become the Architect of Your Goals with New Behavior
So we need to know what we want instead – so the want becomes stronger, deeper, and more empowering than the “I will…” or the “I won’t…” goal. This way, navigating the difficulties and hurdles related to a given goal is given the context is needs.
When we’re deeply in touch with our core values, and actively visualize the life we want, and see ourselves successfully navigating future obstacles, the monkeys simply come along for the ride rather than bopping us on the head left and right.
We need to shape the right goals – which may come from indirect places to avoid empowering the “lack” in your brain.
It also helps to re-shape our identity along the way. We shape identify with new self-study, daily rituals, traditions, and most powerfully, teaching others how to achieve the same goal.
By teaching others while we go along the journey, we must take on the identity of an expert and it builds in natural credibility and ownership of the ideas.
Matching Goals with the Behavior Formula
All goals come back to changing behavior at some level. It helps to reverse-engineer the exact behaviors that are necessary for a goal.
Once you’ve identified the root behavior you want to attack, we need to identify what exactly makes up a “behavior” in the first place.
Let’s explore the formula behind implementing a new behavior.
If behavior change had a recipe or formula, it would look like this:
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger
This is the exact formula pioneered by Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, PhD – who has a very popular behavior courses and “lab” in teaching and studying the inner workings of behavior and persuasion.
Students of BJ Fogg have played critical roles in the development of some of the most popular apps and most successful online businesses in the world.
Designers of mobile apps and games are very in touch with Fogg’s work among other insights from behavioral research – and as such, it’s important that you understand their techniques too. After all, Stanford is located in the heart of Silicon Valley.
You can take the same models that these designers use and learn how to protect your willpower and improve the quality of your behaviors in the same breath.
Learn to trigger the behaviors that serve you and your goals, not someone else’s. Otherwise, the human tendency is to follow someone else’s lead by default.
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger
By just focusing on what you want to do or not do, sometimes you’re reminding yourself of your excuses and obstacles to that thing, and worse yet, you can do more to reinforce the excuses.
Typically, we’re getting some benefit out of an old behavior. So we need a “why” that’s deeper than the current benefit you’re getting.
And, often, we need to identify a substitute behavior and perform a degree of scenario planning as to what triggers and situations bring us down the wrong path.
You need the motivational “Why” to power you beyond the pull of the unwanted behavior.
Finish the sentence “I want…” and follow it with a good 3-5 reasons why.
I want ____ because ____.
I want ____, so that I can _____.
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger
Next, if you shoot too high, you’ll feel sorry for yourself because you’ve set a goal you’re not capable of achieving…yet.
Instead, aim for incremental goals – sometimes starting ridiculously small – especially in areas where you have a history of the greatest feelings of self-criticism and guilt.
Rather than try to exercise every day of the week, focus on exercising just one day of the week. Instead of an hour, aim for 15 minutes and when you stay for 30+ minutes, it’s icing on the cake. The goal can even go as far as sitting in the parking lot of the gym.
Instead of trying to meditate for 15 minutes, start with 5 minutes. If that’s too much, maybe you start with taking 5 deep belly breaths once a day.
Reduce and simplify goals and build momentum as you build confidence and learn what’s necessary to make space for your goal.
BJ Fogg’s lab has demonstrated that those who start with super tiny goals are much more likely to implement a long-term goal. Students who started flossing a single tooth were more likely to maintain the full habit of flossing than those that aimed to floss in entirety from the get-go.
We’re tough on ourselves, and starting incrementally is how you celebrate small wins and gain the courage to take on more.
Small wins build momentum and confidence.
Fogg’s research has demonstrated that you’re more likely to snowball the small wins into the overarching goal than if you start with guns blazing and over-shoot your ability from the get-go.
Why do small goals work best?
Failures hurt our self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy, and we need to build it up from the ground floor.
Instead, have a substitute behavior at the ready, start super tiny, have a celebration ritual, and remind yourself of the deeper wants and why’s behind your vision.
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger
The last necessary piece of the formula is to identify the social, situational, and physical triggers for a behavior – and focus on the trigger and not the behavior itself.
Often when we reach for a goal – we’re not achieving the goal because we’re focused on the wrong aspect of the goal.
For instance, maybe we’re not going to the gym because we only have two sets of gym clothes and we fall off the rails on day three because we’re out of clean gym clothes. The fix to the workout goal could be as easy as buying a 3rd gym outfit.
For deeper dives, check out:
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
- Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
- Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything
- Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
- The WillPower Instinct
- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
I guarantee you that these books are the most dog-eared and weathered on the desks of app innovators and designers whose purpose is to get you to do something and get you addicted to doing it.
Living With the Monkey-Mind
Even equipped with the right formula, it’s important to be ready for the monkey mind.
You need to accept that the mind is full of the gifts, rewards, and the monkeys at the same time.
Instead of fighting a losing battle with the monkeys, expect their presence, and learn to live with them instead.
Monkeys are the distractions, the impulses, and the metaphorical devils on our shoulder.
The impulsive aspects of our mind are linked to primal needs for security, connection, status, sex, sugar, fat, and salt to name a few. The motivational behavior behind getting and protecting those things is important.
Without food, we starve, without sex, security, or connection we don’t persist as a species. Without gossip, we’re not warned of the potentially selfish tendency of an individual in the tribe. Gossip is a social cue to be careful around some people when certain situations arise.
On the other hand, traits related to self-control likely developed out of community needs.
If I share food with someone who does not have it, or while they’re healing from injury – they’re more likely to share food with me when I don’t have it or when I’m nursing an illness. They’ll watch my kids while I go out to hunt or gather.
With self-control, I save surplus food for long winters; without it, I might binge and not survive the winter or an extended famine. I also gain and maintain community allies when I need them most.
Self-control helps us plan ahead. “Worry” helps us identify those areas where we may need to plan.
Trust the Emotional Alert System
Understand that emotions and impulses are signals from the mind and nothing else – they’re highly advanced alert systems that can be predicted, observed, and later reflected upon when you return to a conscious state.
Much of our behavior is knee-jerk responses to physical and emotional states.
You’ll find that you can discover better ways to change your state instead of drinking alcohol, downing another coffee, or gobbling down the donut.
Those “uneasy feelings” can be signs of opportunity for action – or a need for a change in mental and physical state. They can signal a need for a change in your approach after the emotions settle.
Often, we’re not craving the “thing” itself – we’re looking for an escape from the anxiety behind the desire.
Cravings are associated with stress, it’s often the anxiety you’re looking to get rid of when you crave something.
With this understanding, you can be more conscious to choose stress-reducing and health-promoting behaviors that will leave you much more satisfied than finishing a plate of chocolate cake or binge-watching an entire series on Netflix.
You can train your mind to identify the emotions and impulses and immediately engage the thinking mind – so it’s a less energy-intensive process and more automated.
You can train the knee-jerk response to be taking a break, a walk around the block, or taking some time in the sun – or to plan ahead so that the bag of chips isn’t available in the first place when you’re eager to binge – and you jump to a walk around the block or finding a quick 10-minute yoga video on youtube instead.
In part two of this series, I’ll discuss the physiology behind willpower and how stress and addictive behaviors work in directly opposite ways.
While this article focused on the mental frameworks and overarching approaches to behavior identification and change, there are more tactical steps you can take to keep your willpower engine firing on all cylinders.
Understanding the physical mechanisms behind loss of willpower sets the stage for discovering new willpower strategies using diet, lifestyle, and nutritional supplements.
We can learn to identify when our willpower meters are falling, and jump into strategies that re-route the exact brain physiology – instead of hijacking our systems with addictive and impulsive decisions.
Part 2 is available as a brain guide download…