Willpower Will Get You Where You Want To Go – (As Long As You Don’t Want To Stay There)

I recently read an article about a guy who was able through willpower alone to go from couch potato to running absurd distances, super-marathon type events. Willpower. Just willpower. The article talked about kids in a Stanford experiment not eating marshmallows achieving higher academic results, and talked about some research (you can read the study here Kids and Marshmallows and the follow-up book several decades later here The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success) where kids were offered a choice between eating one marshmallow now, or resisting temptation and eating two later. The book suggests that kids who were able to put off instant gratification were able to carry this through life and had higher test scores, lower divorce rates, lower rates of addiction and lower BMI (who would have thought that doubling up your marshmallow intake could result in lower body fat?).

The original study had one line that really stood out to me, maybe because I am interested in behaviourism and I want to know what happens around the activity. What precedes it and what reinforces it? The study states “Moreover, throughout the entire study not a single child violated the stated contingency rule by consuming the preferred but delayed reward before the experimenter’s return.” There was no threat of punishment, just as there was no threat of punishment with Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, but the rewards were there for the taking. This begs the question: Why did none of the kids just take all of the treats and be done with it?

There is a certain amount of obedience in this experiment. In fact, I’d go further and say it has a latent function of being an obedience study – “You can have A now, or B later. Which do you prefer?” Not one kid cheated. Not one. If I were conducting an obedience study this would certainly be in my literature review.

Another interesting aspect, possibly overlooked by many, is that the study cites “One of the most striking delay strategies used by some subjects was exceedingly simple and effective. These children seemed to facilitate their waiting by converting the aversive waiting situation into a more pleasant non-waiting one. They devised elaborate self-distraction techniques through which they spent their time psychologically doing something (almost anything) other than waiting.”

What does this mean? These kids did everything they could to avoid discomfort and temptation. Now that is some serious willpower, but at what cost? What would have happened if the second marshmallow didn’t materialise? How many times can someone use this amount of mental energy before they give up? Interestingly, studies have looked at the nature of willpower and whether it is unlimited or finite, and we’ll get to that later.

Overall, there is a ton of value in the study and essentially the message seems to be that self-control brings greater rewards, at least when the rewards are clearly defined and there is confidence they will arrive. Wait – a belief that something better is on the way as a consequence for a behaviour right now – this sounds like hope. People can hold out for a long time when there is hope, and so can rats (I’ll be writing on this soon, it’s pretty dark). This is essentially high emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Kids who were able to understand their own desires and control them were able to manage their behaviours in order to gain greater reward. What does this have to do with willpower? Great question!

Ok, let’s get back to the original article that led to me looking at the original study. Willpower. If willpower were so easy as “Today I will start/stop *insert goal here*” we’d all be a blazing and unstoppable success in all we tried to achieve. Ideal weight? Easy, all you have to do is willpower it. Want to run 10 miles? Yeah, willpower it, no problem (that said, watch this space for the rat article). What’s that, you want to be the best in your field (whatever that may be)? You can willpower it into existence, easy peasy lemon squeezy. Nope – I’m calling shenanigans! Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult, as Toby Wright would say.

Remember, this marshmallow success thing worked because a kid was told you can have one treat now or two later. What would have happened if they had been told “You can have a marshmallow now, or ‘maybe’ two later”? Some people believe a marshmallow in the mouth is worth two on the plate. What about “You can have one now, and it’s 50/50 on whether you can double or nothing later”? What would the result have been then?

I am going to twist this on its head a little and say this study says more about hope than it does about willpower. Those who are able to see hope in the world are more likely to achieve their goals because they believe their efforts will be rewarded. That’s not to say willpower alone can’t get you somewhere, but it will not keep you where you want to be, you need more. For more on this, check out this link and find the section on Is Willpower A Limited Resource?. What is the missing ingredient? I suggest it is hope. You have to be able to believe there is a purpose – willpower is not the tool for achieving goals. It may get you off the couch but it won’t be the things that keeps you going until you hit the 100 mile mark.

Here are today’s three takeaways:

1 – Willpower alone is not enough. Ever. It may be a great tool to keep you pushing when things get hard, but it isn’t enough to get you to the finish line. It’s a limited resource, don’t rely on it for endurance.

2 – Good things don’t come to those who wait. Good things come to those who create ways to achieve good things. None of these kids waited for the second marshmallow, they devised ways to avoid the temptation, they worked on a plan to achieve their goals. They managed their emotions and their environment.

3 – Endurance is built on hope. The Bible says that “[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Without hope we cannot, and will not persist. Hope is the lifeblood of the soul.

Once again, I am going to state the obvious. Hope is not something we can create on our own. We rely on people all the time to help us, guide us, support and encourage us to be more than we can be. We need coaches and supporters. Willpower alone will only go so far, and when it fades we need others to help encourage us. This is true for everyone, so my mission for you today is this – Thank the person who encourages you and let them know you appreciate them, and then find someone you can help along their way.


Categories: Goals, Hope, Mental Toughness, Performance

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Laura Bon

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