Willpower. Sometimes we have it, other times not.
Why does it seem our willpower deserts us when we are trying
to lose weight, eat healthy, pray daily, exercise, study, or write an article
My New Year’s resolution is not to wait until the last
minute to begin writing this article (it is the last minute right now, but it
is still 2007).
Knowing what we ought
to do, and actually doing it are two different things. Because of Original Sin,
our intellects are darkened, our wills weakened, and we are not always in
control of our passions. In short, we don’t always do what we should. As Saint Paul wrote, “I do
not do what I want, but what I hate” (Romans 7:15). How do we bridge the “execution gap” between
identifying a goal and achieving it?
What we need is motivation.
“Joe” is a very big man. 6’5” and weighs more than 250
pounds. But over the past six months, Joe has been steadily dropping weight. He
looks ten years younger, and has more energy. He works out daily at the gym.
What caused this change? Joe was motivated. He learned from his doctor that he
was borderline diabetic, and unless he wanted to be on dialysis before he was
forty, he’d better do something drastic right now. Joe lost 70 pounds.
What happened with Joe is a textbook example of being motivated to change. Just knowing that we ought to change is not sufficient,
thanks to Original Sin! Research shows that in order for a person to be
motivated to change, one must be willing,
able, and ready to change.
(Think of the acronym, WAR.)
Is the goal important
enough to activate our will in pursuit of it? We are only willing to change
when we perceive the goal as important. Weight loss in itself was not an
important goal for Joe…until he discovered that his health was being seriously
compromised. Then the goal to lose weight became a vitally important one.
Only you can
discern the importance of a particular goal. Someone else cannot set your goals
for you. This is why nagging rarely works. Nagging is someone else trying to make
you believe that a goal is important enough for you to begin working to attain
it. Joe’s wife had been nagging him for quite some time to lose weight. But
until the goal became important to Joe, he was not willing to change his
Psychologists say that discrepancy
is a key to discovering the importance of a particular goal. Discrepancy is an
awareness of the gap between where I am, and where I would like to be.
Discrepancy is an experience of dissatisfaction with the present, and an eye to
the future. I have to be unsatisfied with my present minimum wage job in order
to pursue a career change. However, the discrepancy cannot be so great that I
view the goal as unattainable. This is why the concept of taking one day at a
time is so effective for change.
There is a story (an urban legend?) about a professional
tennis player who was laid up with a broken leg for a month. From his bed, he
visualized his tennis practice every day—for the same number of hours that he
would have practiced out on the court. When he began playing tennis again, he was
found to be at 90% of his pre-injury performance! Whether or not this
particular story is true, there is a popular theory in neuroscience that the
cognitive tasks of visualizing success (whether in socializing or winning an athletic
event) actually retrain the neural pathways of the brain, enabling the desired
outcome to be achieved.
Phlegmatics can use this technique to boost discrepancy, if
they find they are being simply too complacent. The easy-going phlegmatic
temperament tends to be most satisfied with the status quo, and therefore the
least likely to experience discrepancy. Comfortable in the present, slightly
fearful of the future, phlegmatics can visualize their new goal, making it real,
placing themselves in the picture. Picture the new, buff you, working out at
the gym or competing in the Ironman.
But just knowing that the goal is important, and wanting to
achieve it is not always enough. What about those situations when you know how
important it is (say, to kick that vente white chocolate mocha habit) but you
just can’t seem to do it! The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak! (Mt
26:41). This brings us to the second component of motivation for change.
We need to feel confident that we can achieve our goal. Smokers and dieters often feel pessimistic about their ability to quit smoking or to lose weight. They have tried many times and have failed. Their confidence in their ability to change is weak. And
it is not just a matter of “boosting self-confidence.” Many years of smoking or
overeating or indulging in other bad habits actually weaken our wills. The
Catechism tells us, “Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis [practicing
self-denial or self-restraint] enhance the mastery of the will over its acts”
(Catechism 1734). Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, “Discipline is the bridge
between goals and accomplishments.”
Research also shows that people will feel more confident
about undertaking a program of reform, if their friends believe in them! Do you
feel confident and capable of changing when someone says, “Why are you such a
slob? Don’t you have any willpower?” Or, would you feel more inspired by, “You
have the talents and capabilities of tackling this project! I know you can do
it!” This may also be why self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are so
effective. In such groups, one regularly meets with others who have
successfully kicked their habit of drugs or alcohol and they share their wisdom
Psychologists have learned much about motivation by studying
people who are most resistant to change: drug addicts, alcoholics, and
compulsive gamblers. Research shows that fear tactics and increasing suffering,
pain and humiliation do not necessarily produce change. Instead, a curious
Catch-22 occurs: increasing the awareness of the importance of the goal can
actually serve to decrease one’s confidence in achieving it, thereby decreasing
one’s motivation to change.
Melancholics tend to struggle with initiating change,
because they struggle with self-confidence. Melancholics have great foresight
and attention to detail, and they are typically well aware of the true and
noble goals. However, all this wisdom and foresight make them apprehensive about
undertaking intimidating projects! They may foresee all the potential pitfalls,
and have a more realistic assessment of their own abilities; fearful that their
execution of the task may not be perfect, their confidence fails. Your friends
can encourage realistic confidence. You neither want them to be flippantly
assured (“Of course you can lose 40 pounds in two weeks!”) nor as gloomy as you
are (“You could try stapling your stomach, I guess.”)
The sanguine and choleric temperaments tend to be rather confident
about undertaking new projects. In fact, they can sometimes be overly confident. Sanguines tend to plunge in boldly without sufficient forethought or reflection, and give up a
few days later. Cholerics can be both confident and persevering…but may have
failed to identify the right goal. But
sometimes you know your goal is important and you are confident that you can
achieve it, but you just aren’t ready to tackle it right now.
I know that having a budget is important… but I’ll get to it
later. First, I want to catch those fabulous after-Christmas sales! I plan to start
eating more healthy foods…but I’ll wait until after my birthday. Oh, I am going
to start working out…after I join the gym.
Readiness can be enhanced by working through ambivalence. I want to work out at the gym, but it’s so
expensive! I don’t mind eating healthy foods, but who has time to cook that
way? I want to save money, but how am I supposed to live?
We have to face those ambivalent thoughts and establish
priorities. Sometimes, it helps to break down the goal into smaller, more
manageable steps. For those of the sanguine temperament, this may be critical.
An impulsive, spendthrift sanguine who wants to stick to a budget (but can’t
resist those after-Christmas sales) may benefit from setting aside a small amount
of money each month, leaving a sufficient amount accessible for dining out or
those impulse buys that can’t be resisted. The interim step of putting some
money each month into a savings account or an IRA will reduce the ambivalence
about undertaking the bigger goal.
Another way to decrease ambivalence is to reflect on what
one really wants. The sanguine who happily digs deeper and deeper into debt should
stop and ask herself, “What will happen if I continue this behavior?” She can
reflect on how ultimately unsatisfying and truly unhappy her life will be a few
years down the road, when all her credit cards are maxed out and her credit
record is shot. The choleric who hates to admit that he does not always have
all the answers and who sometimes needs to ask for help, should humbly seek
Ultimately, what we are after is transformation in Christ.
Put on the new man, says Saint Paul.
(Eph 4: 22-24). So long as we are tied to our old ways, our bad habits and our
inordinate attachments, we are not free. We may be attached to overeating,
spending money, procrastinating, being right, or people-pleasing. Yet all these
attachments stifle our growth and keep us from becoming truly loving and truly
free. “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes” (Catechism 1733).
Change, on the supernatural level, is conversion. True
change will require conversion of heart as well as the use of motivation
techniques. And that requires prayer and Christ’s grace. When we become
discouraged by our own failed attempts to change for the better, we can recall
that Christ is not only our model but also our strength. The starting point
will be when we admit our weakness, His power, and allow Christ to help us
change. “[W]ith God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).