The Three Powers of Will

April 14, 2020

Welcome back to the five-part series on willpower based on the book, The Willpower Instinct. 

“I won’t eat the popcorn.”

“I won’t eat before 12 p.m. or after 8 p.m.”

“I won’t smoke”

“I won’t have a second drink.”

“I won’t check my email during dinner.”

I won’t…

What is willpower?

When asked about willpower, most people report that willpower involves overcoming temptation or avoiding giving into temptation. This assumption aligns with the American Psychological Association’s definition of willpower – “the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.”

However, apparently “just say no” is only a third of what makes up willpower. Instead, Dr. McGonigal proposes, willpower is actually three different powers: 

  • I won’t.
  • I will power.
  • I want power.

Each power helps us live as our best self.


The Neuroscience Behind Willpower

The prefrontal cortex makes up over 10% of the volume of the brain. While involved in many functions, the prefrontal cortex is best known for its role in executive function. Generally speaking, executive functions focus on controlling short-sighted, reflexive behaviors such as decision making, problem-solving, self-control and acting with long-term goals in mind (i.e., willpower). 


Three Powers in One

Based on the aforementioned definition, we begin seeing how the I will and I want powers come into play. 

“I won’t” is controlled by the upper right region, helping you to avoid potentially dangerous or harmful activities. 

“I will” is controlled in the upper left region of the prefrontal cortex, enabling you to stick to hard tasks by forcing you to do what’s uncomfortable.

“I want” is controlled in the central region of the prefrontal cortex, and reminds you of your long-term goals. This is the most powerful power because it gives you a strong reason and purpose for doing uncomfortable, hard things necessary to succeed in the long-term. 

Take Action: Selecting your Willpower Challenge

Willpower is about harnessing the power of the three will-powers.

We begin the willpower challenge by selecting what we will, won’t, and want to do. 

Yours may be an “I will” challenge, such as:

  • Workout for X minutes daily, X times a week (my husband’s)
  • Stretch for at least X minutes daily (mine)
  • Read more
  • Meditate

Or, choose an “I won’t” challenge, such as:

  • Stop smoking, drinking, or eating popcorn at night!
  • Stop biting your nails
  • Stop online shopping
  • Stop snoozing the alarm

Finally, you may choose to focus on an important goal that you want to make progress towards, which constitutes an “I want” challenge

If you’re unsure of how to identify your willpower challenge, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. What is something you’d like to do more of that will help you move towards a goal, feel better about yourself, or improve your quality of life?
  2. What is a “bad” habit you have or something you would like to do less of because it is keeping you from being your best, achieving your goals, or feeling healthy and happy?
  3. What is an important long-term goal you are working towards? What is a skill you would like to develop?

Take Action: Write your challenge down and share it with someone else


Awareness is half the battle

One of the biggest contributing factors to our lack of self-control is that we lack self-awareness. Our brain is programmed to keep us safe, choosing by default whatever is easiest (i.e., the habit requiring willpower to change). In other words, we run on autopilot.

Plop down on the couch for Tiger King; boom, grab the popcorn.

Alarm clock goes off; boom, hit snooze.

12 p.m. – time for a workout; no, thanks! I’ll keep sitting right here.

In a study by Cornell researcher Brian Wansink and his team, participants were asked to estimate how many decisions about food and drinks they made daily. They were then asked an additional 18 questions about what, when, where, how much, and with whom they ate and drank. Most participants initially estimated making 15 decisions daily; however, the researchers found they actually made 219 decisions on average. 

We’re not just on autopilot when eating. From checking our phone every six minutes to hitting snooze or grabbing that glass of wine each night, many of us are going through life hardly aware of the decisions we are making. 

Take Action: Track your daily habits

Focus on building self-awareness of what daily decisions you make related to your willpower challenge. For instance, my goal is to stretch more, specifically:

  1. I will stretch for 10 minutes every morning as a part of my morning routine. 
  2. I will stretch immediately after a long run or walk. 
  3. I will stretch for 10 minutes every evening before bed. 

So, I might consider tracking things like:

  1. Did I stretch all three times today? If not, why? What got in the way?
  2. What thoughts did I have when deciding to stretch?
  3. If I didn’t stretch all three times, was there a time of day I was more consistent? Was there a time of day when I was less consistent?

I will keep track of these in my journal, and I encourage you to do the same – whether in a journal or on your phone or computer. 


Bonus: Name your impulsive mind

A technique I frequently use with clients is naming their inner voice, whether it’s negative, critical, or limiting. Whether it’s creating and naming an alter-ego to optimize performance or labeling your inner critic to change self-talk, separating yourself from the experience can help you stay rational and in control in the moment. 

Applying this technique to willpower, as Dr. McGonigal suggests, you can name your impulsive mind, which is the part of the brain that seeks instant gratification and comfort. 

The process is simple. Ask yourself: What does my impulsive mind (i.e., the inner voice that wants to give into temptation) want? 

My husband’s willpower challenge is to workout at least 30-minutes daily, 3x per week. His impulsive mind wants him to stay seated and comfortable, so he named him “Lazy Larry.”

I don’t want to stretch because it hurts, so I’ve named mine “Comfortable Carol.”


Recap

  • There are three parts to willpower: I will. I won’t. I want. Each is important, particularly the latter, which reminds you of your “why”.
  • Select your willpower challenge. Begin by bringing awareness to the decision you make relating to your challenge. Without self-awareness, it’s nearly impossible to change your actions. Keep track of your actions in a journal or on your phone/computer.
  • There are two parts of the brain battling – the impulsive vs patient. Naming the impulsive part that seeks comfort can help you identify when it is ruling your decisions, and also help you make decisions that align with your goals. 

I invite you to share your willpower challenge below so we can support each other in this journey. Leave a comment below or, if you wish to remain anonymous, you can email me directly at kate@kateziegler.com.

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  1. […] in willpower and judgment is that sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex. If you recall in week 2 of this series, we discussed that willpower is governed by three areas of the prefrontal cortex. […]

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