The ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’ and Other Willpower Challenges

Tap, tap, swipe, scroll scroll scroll; and here I am again staring at my phone. The comfort of distraction eases the pain of writers’ paralysis. Ha! Would you look at that…

Regardless of what you believe about free will, the “power” in willpower seems more often than not to overpower us! Why does willpower fail us so? Why do I continue to do that which I do NOT want to do? Again and again and again?

Reading Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct described for me, in scientific terms, the intractable workings of our sinful nature and the biology of will. Within one mind is contained two opposing brains – one of impulse and one of rational control. The ego – through desire and pride, subject to social pressure and shame unwillingly shapes us. The concept of mindful control over self through the power of will seems an unreachable ideal at times, try as we might. I’m certainly not suggesting we give up! But rather hoping, the knowledge of WILL, will help me live a better life.

Romans 7:21 (NLT) 21. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.

To start, it’s interesting to note that most of our daily choices (some 40% of them) are made on complete autopilot out of habit. (Check out Charles Duhigg’s book on Habit).

Next, there is a clear continuum of self-control playing out on the world stage – where some have great will and exert it vehemently, while others have little to no power at all. The famous marshmallow experiment by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel revealed the truth that those with the ability to delay gratification fare far better in life. Sadly individuals with mental differences, including Autism and Asperger’s, have much less ability to direct and control their own behavior.

Naturally, our base level of self-awareness is the precursor to our ability for self-control. Not surprisingly then, the more distracted the mind is, the more impulsive it becomes. Stress, lack of sleep, poor diet and health all contribute to a lack of self-control. Sleep deprivation is the equivalent of a mild intoxicant, and we all know what can happen when you have one too many drinks!

What’s more, society makes constant demands on our time, energy, and attention. Filtering distractions, taking on that stretch assignment at work, caring for family, responding to friends, even the basics like figuring out how to feed and clothe yourself every day creates the circumstances for decision fatigue. We become akratic, acting against our better judgment through weakness of will.

There’s a physiological signature of our willpower failures. The impulsive brain is associated with our amygdala fight-flight response vs. the prefrontal cortex which allows us to pause and plan. External stimuli trigger the dopamine reward centers in the brain. Immediate rewards inundation the primitive brain and overwhelm the logical decision-making centers. Getting even a bit of distance, a break of 10 minutes, can give control back to the rational mind.

That said, we can’t always get distance from our own thoughts! Just anticipating a reward can make it more difficult to exert willpower. Dopamine hijacks our attention so much that we mistake the promise of reward for happiness leading us to pursue objects of desire even if they fail to truly make us happy in the long-run. Desire is a serious threat to self-control.

And guess what? When you try to suppress a desire, it comes back even stronger – the ironic rebound effect! Your welcome! We have an active monitor constantly scanning our environment to protect us from threat. As soon as you tell your monitor to be on alert, it is! And because we have a cognitive bias to trust our thoughts as important sources of information, when a thought comes back that we’re trying to suppress we may feel it to be true and dive in! Crazy, I know! But you can’t believe everything you think! Focusing on what you WANT to do instead of what you DON’T want to do is a better technique.

Although it can be a threat, desire can also be an effective source of strength! In fact, the most surefire way to reach a goal is to decide what you WANT and commit to achieving it. With clarity of plan comes clarity of action. Tapping into the want-power of your deepest desires may be the only way to stay focused and succeed in the long-term.

Herein lies yet another trap, false hope syndrome – it turns out the very decision to change and become a “new you” is felt in the brain as an instant reward. We get excited by our unrealistic optimism. Yeah! And as we pat ourselves on the back for initiating change, our idealized future-self falls flat on its future face – splat goes our goals!

Strangely, we use different regions of the brain when thinking about our future self. Treating future-us more like a stranger, we tend to misjudge and overestimate our future skills and abilities. Clearly, our future-self likes exercise more than chocolate? We also discount the value of a reward if we have to wait for it. This delay discounting combined with future-self bias saddles our poor unfortunate future selves with the consequences of the not-so-good but fun and immediate choices of today. Sigh!

Dare we be optimistic! The optimism of progress may generate a license to indulgence. Moral licensing is our virtuous way to vice. We feel good after doing good, and therefore feel justified in doing less good (or even bad). Labeling our self-control challenges as good or bad is a slippery slope. When we make moral judgments, we are quick to justify and quick to use progress as an excuse to ease up and engage in goal sabotaging behavior. I had a salad yesterday, so it’s OK to order fries at lunch today! Yum!

My favorite – the “what-the-hell effect” – that inescapable cycle of shame when you indulge and the act of indulgence leads to more indulgence. Oh my god, ice cream – you taste sooo good! I’ll just go ahead and eat the whole pint.

Just when you thought you’d had enough of your own willpower trials, enter stage left and right – other people!!! The people closest to us act as competing selves in our minds. Especially the people we love and respect the most; these key influencers can strengthen or weaken our resolve. Thanks to empathy and our mirror neurons, we mimic the willpower failures around us – diving into the candy jar in the office and splurging with the spouse who wants to order dessert at dinner. Damn you people! You’re not helpful!

Rule-breaking is especially contagious. And when the rest of our tribe does something we tend to think it’s a good idea as well. Sure this social proof helps us decide what books to read on bestseller lists and what Zagat rated restaurants to visit, but it can be detrimental as well. We can’t seem to separate ourselves from our social instincts. The pull to the middle is strong we go ahead and conform to the norm. Our best intentions fall prey to the will and actions of others.

On a positive note, social acceptance and pride can reinforce our resolve to change. Imagine how much love, approval, and affection you’ll receive when you succeed! Going public with a personal goal draws on the basic human need for approval to motivate. CAUTION: social rejection is an instant willpower killer. Disapproval drains our ability to resist temptation and encourages us to give in to heal our wounded selves. Pride is much more powerful than shame.

In closing, researchers have learned that self-control behaves a lot like a muscle that can be trained. As a muscle, the prefrontal cortex center of your rational self-control mind needs rest and recovery. But don’t be fooled, like an elite athlete about to collapse near the finish line, we often feel depleted before we are completely drained. When success is in view, we can stretch our willpower limits to achieve victory.

The Willpower Instinct is a worthwhile read! It offers actionable insights at the end of each chapter as Dr. McGonigal coaches readers toward willpower success using science as a guide – observe, record, test, and try, try again! Below is a list of the do’s and don’ts that I found most helpful. Good luck!

  1. First and foremost, commit to what you really WANT to propel you forward!
  2. Of course, start strong! Do the hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when you have the most presence of mind!
  3. Why not name your impulsive mind in order to recognize and control it? Bad Kat! Haha!
  4. Get to know your triggers and eliminate them as much as possible. Remove the temptation!
  5. Pay attention to how cravings feel, you don’t have to give in. Instead, you can “surf the urge” and like a wave, it will pass over you.
  6. Get distance from the temptation, even 10 minutes can help!
  7. Architect your choices by literally automating the change you’d like to see if your life.
  8. Can you find ways to bind yourself to your goals? Or constrain the impulsive self as if it were an enemy to your future self? What rules and constraints might be helpful?
  9. Rest and recover your mind through stress relieving activities, self-control is muscle and needs a break.
  10. Invest in your health! Anything you do for your health improves your willpower! Self-care strengthens self-control!
  11. Attempt mini willpower challenges to build your resolve slowly over time.
  12. Remove moral judgments. You’re not a BAD person for eating ice cream!
  13. Avoid self-criticism, and instead, approach yourself like a good friend with self-compassion.
  14. Spend time thinking and reflecting on your goals.
  15. Identify a role model who has achieved your goal or someone you admire as disciplined.
  16. GO public with your willpower challenge and use the basic human need for approval to motivate
  17. Enlist an accountabili-buddy to check-in with regularly.
  18. Surround yourself with people who share your goals and perhaps spend less time with those who don’t.
  19. Don’t discount the future, make it matter more by envisioning the outcomes ahead of time.
  20. Dream! Imagine your success and how you and those around you will benefit in your succeeding.
  21. Imagine how it will be easier later and you’re more likely to stick with it.
  22. Why not send a message to your future self about it?
  23. FOCUS on commitment rather than progress!

One thought on “The ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’ and Other Willpower Challenges

  1. Great list! Quite a few of them are things that I mindfully do daily, though number 16 is one of my favorite because I’ve learned that being more public with your intentions adds a layer of accountability to keep you on track.


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