Willpower: We all need it. We all have it. But how do we tap into it in the exact moments we need it most? How do we understand the function of willpower, so that we can best evoke it in our times of need?
Trying a new diet? Working on your final essay? Attempting to save money for a holiday instead of buying those new shoes? To the best of our knowledge willpower seems as if it takes a grueling amount of discipline to both ascertain it and to hold onto it when we are in the throes of working toward a goal. But perhaps we are looking at it in all the wrong ways.
An Experiment In Will
Parents often teach their children that willpower I what is needed in order to succeed. If you just ‘try harder’ you will succeed. But is this the most useful way to reach your goals? Is this the most constructive way to perform willpower?
A study was conducted where a group of (hungry) children were taken into a room where there was a plate of freshly baked cookies, and a plate of cold radishes. The children were split into two groups and the first group were told they could indulge in as many cookies as they wanted to. The second group were told the same about the radishes. Needless to say the group with the radishes spent much of their time looking longingly at the group with the cookies – and at the cookies themselves. All of the children were then ushered into a room where they were asked to work on a puzzle. What they didn’t know was that the puzzle was not solvable.
The outcome of this situation was that the group who had eaten, or indulged in, the cookies – the group that were allowed to treat themselves during the study process – worked hard at the puzzle for a good twenty minutes before becoming exasperated to the point of giving up. The group with the radishes, however, gave up after around eight minutes. They had depleted much of their willpower and enthusiasm previously, when trying to heartily enjoy an unappetizing dish that they were not interested in, even though it would have satiated their hunger.
What Did We Learn?
What the experiment tells us is that the idea of struggling to push and push through willpower and just continue to work harder does not work. Having treats and rewards, however, renews and replenishes our resources and allows bursts of excitement and will to come through. We should allow our children rest times in between the struggle, and reward their focus and good behavior intermittently, if we want them to happily succeed at the job at hand. If we give them time to play and feel happy, they will in turn feel replenished. Willpower is then understood as a slow and steady race, rather than a sprint to a quick finish.
Where There’s A Will There’s A Way
Willpower, we have discovered, is actually like a muscle! If we tend to it and train it for long distances, we can go the whole way. It is kind of like weight training – you can’t start off lifting weights that are two hundred pounds! You have to start small, assess what you are capable of, practice, reward yourself when you reach small goals, and finally work your way up to the place you are aiming for. Your muscles need to grow but by bit before they are strong enough to lift the goal weight. Think about the tortoise and the hare! If we run too hard too quickly without the strength we need, we won’t make it to the end! But if we race bit by bit, resting when we need to, but doing the work required, we will see the finish line, and cross over it – hopefully in first place!