January 1, 2020
Willpower, emotional intelligence and motivation.
First the bad news. Your New Year’s resolutions have already failed. Statistically, your good intentions to lose weight, get fit, save money, or get organised have less than a 5% chance of succeeding in the long-term. Never mind. Better luck next time.
But seriously, there is hope.
The first step is to understand that the concept of willpower, while being very popular, is an unhelpful myth. Yes, some people are better at sticking to their goals, but ‘willpower’ is not the reason.
How do we know?
There are now several studies showing those with good ‘self-control’ have something else working for them other than willpower. For example, in one German study, researchers monitored 205 people asking them regular questions about their self-control in a given moment, and how many temptations or desires they felt.
The results found those with the most self-control were the same people who reported the least temptations. In other words, they didn’t need willpower; they simply had fewer temptations to begin with. So if you are trying to quit smoking or lose weight, and you only get a few cravings, you’ll most likely succeed. But if your cravings are stronger you will struggle. The difference is not willpower, so stop beating yourself up for not having any!
Now the good news. Evidence shows self-compassion, in addition to promoting good mental and physical health, is a secret weapon for sticking with goals.
In one study with university students, those who expressed self-forgiveness after failing a test were more likely to 1) study harder next time, and 2) achieve higher grades next time.
In a quirky study with dieters, two groups were asked to eat piles of donuts -all in the name of science! After eating the donuts, one group were encouraged not to condemn themselves too much. For example, they were reminded that ‘we all like to indulge on occasion’. The second group received no such prompting to go easy on themselves.
Both groups were then asked to act as judges in a candy judging contest. As official ‘candy judges’ they were invited to eat as much as necessary to ensure their ratings were accurate! In other words, an open invitation to binge. Interestingly, the subjects in group one, – the ones previously encouraged to be kind to themselves, consumed only half as much candy as the subjects in group two.
These studies show that self-compassion, more than willpower, is the real key to sticking to your goals. So when you miss a gym session, or break your diet, or get rejected in a job interview, or your house is a mess once again remember to be forgiving and kind to yourself. Nobody’s perfect and that includes you. With self-compassion you will bounce back faster and succeed in the long run. You will also be happier and healthier overall.
Some final thoughts on self-compassion.
The universe, in its wisdom, has already provided people to judge you. You don’t need to join them.
If you really must judge yourself, never judge yourself more harshly than you would judge a friend who had made a similar slip.
Adams, C., & Leary, M. (2007). Promoting Self–Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.
Hofmann, W, et.al. (2012). Everyday Temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1318–1335.