Does willpower really exist?

January equals willpower. At least it does if you want to give your lifestyle a shake-up at the beginning of a new year.

Stepping away from that cake, saving money, dusting off your gym bag; they’re all things made possible with generous helpings of determination and consistency as you exert your self-control.

But removing crisps and pop from your day-to-day existence, no matter how tempting they look on the supermarket shelf, may not necessarily be a matter of willpower. Some think the concept simply doesn’t exist, although it’s not a view shared by everyone.

You know you want to. But can willpower stop you?

With 17 January known as Ditch New Year Resolutions Day, as it's around then that most good intentions from 1 January fail, we asked experts with opposing views on whether willpower is something we should give up on altogether.

It may be 'too simple a term'

Carl Erik Fisher is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in the USA and a strong opponent of the concept. He told BBC Bitesize: “I think people get attached to the idea of willpower because it seems like an easy explanation for why we sometimes have difficulty completing certain tasks. It has strong cultural resonance, with the idea of the will dating back to the times of the ancient Romans. The problem is, the idea is over simplified.”

Through his studies, Dr Fisher has found that self-control is instead a series of different tasks, such as shifting attention from one subject to another, or managing the emotions which drive someone towards temptation. In his opinion, the methods people can employ to meet their goals are too varied to sit beneath the umbrella description of ‘willpower’.

Having too many resolutions can have an impact on how much willpower you have to use

A 'form of energy'

Others disagree. Professor Roy Baumeister is a psychologist based at the University of Queensland in Australia and a champion of the positives willpower can bring. He sees it as a form of energy to be used wisely - with levels that can rise and fall. Prof Baumeister explained: “To be sure, sometimes it is more difficult than other times to summon up willpower. Your supply of available willpower varies, and so it can be low at times, such as when tired, hungry, stressed out, or having interpersonal conflicts.”

His advice is to concentrate that willpower energy on smaller, achievable goals at first. For example, if you want to lose two stone by New Year’s Eve, begin by making yourself get off the bus a stop earlier for some extra daily exertion. Exercising willpower is the same as working a muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it becomes, meaning it could be less daunting to maintain a regular gym regime further down the line. He added: “Trying to make multiple changes at the same time spreads your willpower very thin, so each time you work on one resolution, you reduce your changes with the others.”

Smaller steps earlier in the year can make it easier to deal with that new gym regime later on

Look deeper into challenges

Dr Fisher believes that, rather than using willpower, it’s worth looking at why a goal or situation is challenging in the first place. Identifying the root can then lead to a more direct solution.

He said: “If someone is facing a tough challenge, what exactly is challenging about it? Is there an emotional element underneath the seeming struggle, like sadness or boredom? What would best take care of that feeling?” He suggests a spot of creative thinking could be key. Finding new ways to distract from temptation and living our challenges inside our heads, such as meditation, deep breathing or a short burst of exercise could all help. He also said: “I think it can be really useful to get curious about all the different skills that might go into the broader, vague idea of willpower.”

Whereas Prof Baumeister would encourage us to take care of our willpower, giving that energy the fuel it needs. “Because your supply is limited,” he said, “you should respond to challenging times by reducing other demands, so you can use your willpower to address it. When under major stress, don’t also try to go on a diet or make other changes.” Prof Baumeister also underlined the importance of quality sleep and food in keeping willpower at a healthy level.

It may not be willpower, it may be the need to alter choices that affect our behaviour

A matter of self-identity

But Dr Fisher is concerned about the connotations surrounding willpower in general, especially when people use it to punish themselves or criticise others over a lack of it: “The best psychological research we have says that a harsh, blaming stance is not a useful way to change behaviours. Instead of thinking of yourself as somehow lacking in some power, it can be very liberating to think more curiously about what actually drove the behaviour and what you might want to do differently.”

If you firmly believe in willpower as a psychological reality, one final piece of advice from Prof Baumeister is to use it without even realising: “Everyone is capable of using willpower. However, some people use it more effectively than others. The most effective way of using it is to work with habits. Break bad habits and form good ones. Performing habitual behaviours does not require willpower, or at least not very much, and so good habits can enable you to live a good life with less struggle.”

Dr Fisher accepts people need to find methods for their self-control, but also thinks that "sometimes people value willpower for willpower’s sake, setting themselves up to test themselves because that means something to them in terms of their self identity.”

It’s a debate that could roll on into the next new year. But if you’re determined to meet that personal challenge in 2021, and are looking for a way through the initial struggle, hopefully there’s elements on both sides of the argument that offer the tools to succeed.

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