Baumeisters’s work is important because it highlights the underlying biochemistry of willpower and how depleted energy levels (particularly glucose levels) inhibit our ability to follow through on our intentions. This is however only part of the picture, and there are a number of ways that we can strengthen our willpower.
Before our intention can become a deep personal commitment, we have to cross a threshold where an intention is converted into a resolute engagement to attain the object of our desire. Willpower therefore springs from a conscious choice to make a concrete thing happen. This idea underpins and resonates very strongly with the Transtheoretical Model of Behaviour Change as we move from pre-contemplation to action when making a change.
Good intention arises in the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of change during which we consider the advantages and benefits of making a change. We play around with the idea of how we will be when we have changed. “What will I look like?” “How will I feel?” John wanted to ‘look and feel better’, he had an image in mind of how he looked in his early 30s. At the preparation and action stages of change, we have to engage with the vision we have and engage our willpower to do something different. This is also the point when ‘the going gets tough’ and our willpower can allow us to override the resistance we encounter in ourselves.
At the Preparation stage it is possible to harness and strengthen willpower. Baumeister’s research suggests you can build willpower by:
Forming your intention: make your goal concrete and tangible, make it as SMARTas possible. Get the look and feel of it, give it shape and form so that you can visualise it. (‘I am committing to losing half a stone within the next 3 months’ rather than ‘ I am going to lose some weight before the summer)
Commit unconditionally to your intention: make a conscious choice to put your focus and your energy behind your goal. Focus on one goal at a time. Baumeisters’s work suggests that success is more likely if you are not spreading your willpower too widely by trying to achieve a number of goals. If you are ambivalent about committing then you are still contemplating rather than ready for action.
Protect your intention: nurture it like a small child, as it will need protecting. Take measures to control your environment. Don’t have food in the fridge that you should not be eating. Only cook what you need to eat, plan menus a week ahead. Control your thoughts and emotions by finding tools and techniques that can help you maintain a positive position. Learn to recognise signs that your willpower may be waning. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. This is the point where willpower really has to kick in.
Baumeister advises against crash diets and giving up food like chocolate as trying to hold to these regimes depletes the willpower and inevitably leads to giving into the cravings.
What we can learn from his work is that sustainable behaviour and lifestyle changes take focus and time. We need our willpower to take us through the difficult stage of taking and sustaining new behaviour. Once it becomes a habit we need our will power to maintain the habit, as there are inevitably times when we will be challenged.
One final word from Baumeister, which I consider very important.
“Whether you are judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower”.
Being overweight is not a sign of weak willpower, the relationship between self-control and weight loss is complex in a consumer driven society.
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Written by Dr. Noel Duncan
Ach, Narziss (1910) On the act of Will and Temperament: An Experimental Study: Quelle & Meyer.
Prochaska, JO; Norcross, JC; DiClemente, CC. Changing for good: the revolutionary program that explains the six stages of change and teaches you how to free yourself from bad habits. New York: W. Morrow; 1994.