I will, I won’t, I want – which is it?

When trying to achieve a lifestyle behaviour change every client will be faced with challenges. You will often here people say “I have tried this, but I lacked the willpower. A leading researcher in the field of willpower is Roy Baumeister. Baumeister and other experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse (2). If you are trying to make numerous changes then it is quite likely that you are trying to use a lot of will power and resisting numerous challenges. If the theory is accurate then you will quickly deplete your willpower. This would suggest that making small regular changes will be far more successful than sweeping changes all made at the start of the programme. This approach certainly ties in with my research and current way of practicing.

Another important aspect of lifestyle behaviour change is goal setting. I strongly advocate that this is included in any programme. It also appears to be the key to boosting willpower. In her excellent book ‘The science of willpower’(1) Dr. Kelly McGonigal discusses how her research at Stanford University has uncovered how willpower works. As humans the prefrontal cortex of the brain is what differentiates us from any number of other animals. Within this area of the brain we exert self-control. These include I will, I won’t, and I want. These are designed to control what you pay attention to what you think about, even how you feel. Consequently, it is really good at controlling what you actually do.

Because of this when you are considering what actions you will or won’t undertake your willpower can be boosted by paying attention to what you want, hence “I will, I won’t, I want”. When teaching behaviour change, I always consider the power of anchoring your goals in positive emotions. A powerfully anchored goal will prove to be a strong ‘I WANT’. Now when you are tempted by the fast food or lazing in front of the television you use the I won’t and eat healthily and/or get active. This is now supported by a strong ‘I WANT’ and thus overall willpower is strengthened. It is the combination of the strong ‘I want’ with either I will or I won’t that is important in boosting your chances of following through with your decision.

The two key messages are:

1. Make small, achievable regular changes
2. Have strong goals that are emotionally anchored that boost your ‘I WANT’.

1. Kelly McGonigal (2013) The science of willpower. Avery Publishing Group Inc., U.S.
2. Perspectives in Psychological Science. 2018 Mar;13(2):141-145. doi: 10.1177/1745691617716946.