We eat too much, we drink too much, we have credit card debt, we don’t workout enough, and we’re social media addicts.
Oh willpower, where art thou?
Most of us are constantly searching for willpower, for self-control, for a way to become mentally stronger in one area of life or another. The questions we most often struggle with when it comes to willpower are the HOW and WHERE? How do we find this willpower? Where do we find more self-control?
In his book Willpower, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister argues that willpower is like a muscle: It can get tired and break down, but you can also make it stronger by training it right.
So how do we train it right?
In his book Barking up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is Mostly Wrong (highly recommended, by the way), author Eric Barker presents a unique view about how to train yourself to develop more willpower:
Turn life into a game!
A great example of this is Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow theory (http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/struggles-psychologist-studying-self-control).
Basically, he did a study where kids were promised two marshmallows if they could resist eating one. Many couldn’t resist the sweet treat, but those who avoided the urge to devour a marshmallow didn’t actually display the extreme willpower you might have thought. Instead, these kids changed the game by doing things such as making up a story in their minds that the delicious sugary marshmallows were actually puffy clouds and didn’t taste good anyway.
The point is only to say willpower and self-control are only needed if you feel a struggle. You don’t enjoy your work, so you feel a struggle to work harder. You don’t love the pain of getting your heart rate up, so you struggle to motivate yourself to go to the gym.
But when there is no struggle, you no longer need to muster more willpower. The kids who convinced themselves the marshmallows weren’t marshmallows didn’t feel the struggle. They didn’t need willpower.
If you think about it, it makes sense: If I put a delicious, warm peanut butter cookie right out of the oven in front of you when you’re super hungry and craving sugar, there might be a struggle. BUT, if you’re deathly allergic to peanuts, chances are you’re going to choose life over the treat and you it won’t require any willpower or self-restraint to avoid eating the cookie.
This is Barker’s exact point: His solution is to turn turn various things in your life into a game. This will stop you from feeling a struggle, he says, and you’ll no longer need to stress out about finding more willpower.
His logic can be applied to all areas of life, like fitness and your job, but also to the more mundane, boring things we need to do like housework—tasks we often think require a ton of willpower.
Dreading doing the dishes? Challenge yourself to finish the dishes in less time than you did the night before and suddenly it almost becomes fun (or you end up with half-washed dishes if you’re too competitive).
Barker explained good games have necessary criteria: They are winnable, they have rules, and they provide feedback so you always know where you stand.
One of the reasons games work, he said, is because they allow you to celebrate small wins along the way. (In fact, data shows that life satisfaction is much higher for those who experience a steady flow of minor accomplishment as opposed to those who only express interest in major accomplishments. This might be part of the reason AA is so successful).
The point is: The small wins in life keep us moving forward in all facets of life.
So the next time you’re procrastinating doing your taxes, going to the gym, or meeting a deadline at work, change the game by turning it into a winnable game.