Home All Stress, Willpower, and Wanting What You Want to Want

Stress, Willpower, and Wanting What You Want to Want

written by Jeremy McCarthy 5 June 2012

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

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. Lack of willpower is the top reason people give for falling short of their goals.

   Temptation in action

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 lifestyle are able to maintain the change. There is good news for those wanting to cut back on alcohol because 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. It is up to 26% in 2011 from 22% in 2010 and 20% in 2009. 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.

Crushing Temptation

But if willpower is the biggest barrier to overcome, this is good news, since scientists such as Roy Baumeister 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.

A Motivation Exercise

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 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?

   What makes you want to run?

To do this exercise, 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.” 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.

Editor’s Note: This article was simultaneously published in Jeremy’s blog, The Psychology of Well-Being. On June 6, Jeremy will be speaking on a panel with Jessica Alquist, one of Roy Baumeister’s willpower researchers, at the Global Spa and Wellness Summit at the Aspen Institute.

References and recommended reading:

American Psychological Association (Feb. 12, 2012). Lack of Willpower May Be Obstacle to Improving Personal Health and Finances. Press release.

American Psychological Association (2012). What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control.

American Psychological Association (2012). What Americans think about willpower: A survey of perceptions of willpower & its role in achieving lifestyle and behavior-change goals

Baumeister, R. F. & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The Penguin Press.

Temptation in action courtesy of Nicole Hanusek
Crushing temptation courtesy of Tim Hulme
Run courtesy of Alejandro Groenewold

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1 comment

Kevin Simmons 13 June 2012 - 2:36 am

So by WWYWTW I would look to remove the obstacles to my motivation by thinking, “Since I want this thing, what are the things that keep me from wanting it enough to do it?”

I like it. It’s a bit of systems approach. My behavior emerges from many factors – so if I want to behave in a certain way, then I need to pay attention to the system that is creating my behavior and think about how to modify it appropriately.

Are you familiar with Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard’s “One-Minute…” books? I think they offer great (and simple) advice for training yourself to WWYWTW.


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