This article is also published on Positive Psychology News Daily.
The American Psychological Association recently commissioned some research on stress and willpower in America to understand American perceptions of stress and the motivation to make lifestyle and behavior changes. Almost everyone that they surveyed (93%) had goals to change some aspect of their behavior in 2012. And “lack of willpower” is the top reason people give for falling short of their goals.
As you might expect, most of the goals people set are around improving health. In the last 5 years almost everyone has set one or more health goals including to eat better (77%), exercise more (75%), lose weight (66%), reduce stress (60%) or get more sleep (58%).
In spite of all of these noble goals, the APA’s research suggests that less than half of adults who recognize a needed change in their lifestyle are able to maintain the change. There is good news for those wanting to cut back on alcohol, as this is the exception. Quitting smoking and reducing stress seem to be the two hardest lifestyle factors to modify.
Why is change so difficult? The #1 barrier to change that the Americans in the survey cited was a lack of willpower (27%.) But it is interesting to note that not having enough time is growing year over year as a perceived barrier (up to 26% in 2011 from 22% in 2010 and 20% in 2009). And time and willpower seem to be related since time was the number one thing respondents felt could help them to be more disciplined about behavior change. This makes sense since reducing time pressure does seem to be better for health.
But if willpower is the biggest barrier to overcome, this is good news, since scientists (Roy Baumeister, among others) have shown that willpower can be developed with exercise (“like a muscle” Baumeister would say.) About 71% of the adults surveyed believed that willpower can be learned so most people are not constrained by their own self limiting beliefs.
So what’s missing? Why isn’t change easier? The answer seems to be motivation.
The participants who reported the highest levels of motivation were significantly more likely to be successful. It should be noted that participants reported that all or most of their motivation comes from within. Only 12% had the motivation of a family member, friend or health care provider as the driving force.
Those with high motivation were also more likely to pursue certain success strategies that most people find challenging such as resisting temptation, and postponing short-term desires in exchange for better long-term outcomes.
Clearly, building motivation is an important part of behavior change and could be an aspect that people sometimes overlook. One exercise that people can use to build their motivation is called “Wanting What You Want to Want” (WWYWTW). Most of the APA survey respondents cited setting clear goals and reminding oneself of the goal when temptation occurs as important strategies to follow. Setting a clear goal is about defining “what you want.” But WWYWTW is about defining what you want to want more. What do you want to be motivated more to do?
To do this exercise you analyze what you want to want more. For example, you might say, “I want to want to exercise more.” Then you analyze things that would make you want that more. For example, you might list “if I went with a friend; if I knew I had good music to listen to at the gym; if I had pictures up on my wall of very fit people, etc.”) This exercise can help to identify strategies to boost your motivation and therefore improve your lifestyle.
Since willpower is simply a person’s ability to do what is best in spite of other attractive options it is strongly driven by the level of desire for the better outcome. So next time you are setting goals for yourself, don’t just ask “what do I want?” Ask, “What do I want to want?” and then grow that desire.
References and recommended reading:
Baumeister, R. F. & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The Penguin Press.
P.S. This week, I am at the Global Spa and Wellness Summit at the Aspen Institute. Tomorrow, I will be speaking on “Spas and the Science of Happiness” on a panel alongside Jessica Alquist, one of Roy Baumeister’s colleagues on willpower research.
by Jeremy McCarthy
Learn more about my online course on positive leadership here.