As you read these words, you’re witnessing an exercise in willpower. Yes, I have 20 tabs open on my browser window as I write. But I have decided I will not click among them because I am the type of person who can focus on one thing at a time. And, yes, I ate several snacks before I sat down to write. But they were rice cakes (albeit ones dipped in chocolate), and I enjoyed them.
I know that finding focus and fueling my work are two things that will get this essay written. That’s because I’ve just talked to some very smart people who have helped me recalibrate the way I think about willpower. Their research suggests that it is not some innate quality — we either have it or we don’t — but that we can strengthen our willpower by rewriting our interior monologues about who we think we are.
When pressed, most health care practitioners will acknowledge that no matter how hard they try to help, patients must want to change before they can become their idealized selves. In my case, I want to be a calm, limber, self-assured woman who manages friends, work, family, and motherhood with aplomb. A person who gives of herself and finds time for herself in equal measure. It would be particularly nice if that woman could also fit into all of the pants that now occupy her closet.
So what’s keeping me from being that woman? Well, my tendency to distract myself when I should be focusing on work or to not eat as well as I should are two of the factors. “Willpower is our ability to resist temptation,” explains Jawwad Noor, a Boston University economics professor who specializes in decision theory. But managing to do that takes work. “Willpower is like a muscle,” Noor says. “In the short run, if we use it for one task, then we have less of it for a subsequent task, but if we keep using it, then in the long run it grows stronger.”
To be honest, my gym bag has sat unused on the floor of my kitchen all week. If I can’t find a way to get to spin class, how am I supposed to find time to strengthen my will?
According to Jenny Eden Berk, a certified eating psychology coach in Newton Centre, it might mean rewriting the narrative in our heads that too often defines self-control by our slip-ups. Willpower is “one of those charged terms,” Berk says. “If you can use it, you’re strong and disciplined. And if you don’t, you’re a failure.”
Berk works as a kind of “food therapist,” helping her clients explore their relationships with the things they eat. So, for example, instead of using carrots and sticks (or just carrot sticks) to motivate, she might ask me why I reach for the pint of ice cream at the end of the night. What is the ice cream acting as a substitute for? Intimacy? Am I just tired or bored? She might suggest calling a good friend or watching a movie, or maybe planning my day so that I can have 30 minutes of alone time on the exercise bike as a reward instead.
Berk suggests using mindfulness tools to give yourself space to think about your eating choices — like taking a walk to contemplate the free office cupcakes — and to let you hear what your body needs. If you decide you need the cupcake, then savor it, she says. Otherwise we lose all the positive associations we have with food. Eating a cupcake doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re a person who has health goals but who can also enjoy an occasional treat.
Such positive narratives can play a part in health outcomes beyond weight loss. Jonathan Adler teaches psychology at Olin College, where he studies how the stories we tell ourselves shape the way we live, including our mental health. As research subjects share their life stories, Adler and his colleagues listen for things they can measure, like “agency,” which demonstrates that you feel in control of your life. He says that as researchers followed subjects over time, they found that people whose stories demonstrated more agency tended to have better mental health when they were later faced with a chronic illness or cancer.
In another study, researchers tracked people seeking psychotherapy. They noticed that subjects’ narratives sometimes began to show more agency weeks before their mental health demonstrated a significant improvement. “They were telling a new story about their lives, and then a couple weeks later their mental health improved,” Adler says. “There’s some evidence that speaks to the idea that if we can narrate a new version of our lives, our identity has a new story. And we then live into the story.”
In short, willpower alone isn’t enough. We need, Adler says, to realize we’re not just a character in our life stories, we’re also the narrator. And the way we tell stories about ourselves may shape who we can be.
I’m the narrator of this story, and as you can see, I willed myself into making it happen. Now you get to go write your own life.