To hear people talk about willpower you would think it was some mystical power that we all have to varying degrees. Those with a lot of will power are able to do difficult things like give up smoking or lose weight, while – or so it would seem – those with a low level of willpower are doomed to continue smoking or continue to be overweight. The reality is not so simple.
As human beings we are complex creatures, and part of that complexity is facing conflicting desires. I want to lose weight, but I also want that extra portion of potatoes and a piece of cake to follow it. I can’t have it both ways, so what happens? Well, in short what will happen is that I will follow the course of action that represents what I want more. If losing weight is more important to me than enjoying those calories, then I will resist the temptation. However, if the pleasure of consuming those calories appeals more than the idea of losing weight, I will choose to tuck in. There is no magical or mystical ‘willpower’ – it boils down to which we want more.
What complicates matters is that much will depend on the circumstances at the time – that is, there will be contextual factors that will influence which preference I rate above another at any given moment. If someone has just really annoyed me by, for example, promising to do something by a particular time and then putting me in a very difficult position when they don’t actually do it, then my preference for ‘comfort eating’ to manage my feelings of annoyance and disappointment at that point may displace my desire to lose weight, and so I go for the extra food option. However, consider a different scenario. Imagine that I have just found out that someone I know who was quite overweight has died of a heart attack at just 49 years of age. At that moment my commitment to losing weight is more likely to come to the fore, enabling me to find it easier to resist those tempting calories.
There will be other factors too. Today it’s a friend’s birthday and everyone is overeating, so I find it much easier to join in the indulgence. Tomorrow, though, I may well find myself breathless after walking up two flights of stairs and I will be determined to decline the biscuits that will be offered at the meeting I am going to.
What will make a difference is how consistent we can manage to be. If, for example, I am determined to lose weight, then I know that I must be consistent in how I approach the subject. Being careful about what I eat and taking exercise one day and stuffing my face, with no exercise the next will not help me achieve what I want to. And, in addition, there is a fair chance that I will feel disappointed in myself for letting myself down – allegedly because I see myself as ‘lacking will power’, which comes to be seen as a personal failing. In turn, that can become an excuse, an example of bad faith, when we say to ourselves: ‘There’s no point trying to lose weight. I haven’t got the willpower’.
There is, then, no ‘willpower’ that we need to harness. We just need to be clear which of the conflicting desires is more important to us and try to be as consistent as we can in evolving circumstances. It can help too to be aware of who and what will influence our choices, so that we are in a stronger, better-informed position to make the choices that matter to us.