Why Willpower (Often) Fails

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Grinding through a problem often fails. Learn why, and what you can do instead.

When you want to make a change in your life, you might think it's time to roll up your sleeves, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, put the pedal to the medal, complete a couple dozen other idioms, and just grind through it. If you want to lose weight, eat less junk food. If you want to exercise more, hit the gym.

But despite the plethora of sayings and conventional wisdom declaring willpower is everything, scientific evidence suggests that simply forcing your way through problems isn't always the best strategy. A new behavioral science report explains why.

"Why is self-control an object of fascination for philosophers, social scientists, policymakers, and pundits alike? Perhaps because failures of self-control often persist even when people recognize them and resolve to act differently in the future," says the report.

The authors think it comes down to different "selves." Simply put, you in the present is different than you in the future. Your theoretical future self might want to stop eating sugar, but your present self just walked past a by a donut shop, smelled the dough wafting through the window, and all of a sudden, your mouth is full of chocolate frosting.

"Although the decision makers always know what they want to do in the moment, these current preferences contradict their own past plans," the report continues.

You'd think this would be obvious, but everyone from individuals to policy-makers forget that simply saying you should do the right thing doesn't actually make you do the right thing. For instance, Nancy Reagan's famous "Just Say No" campaign urged children to simply turn down drugs and alcohol. The same basic strategy has been used in anti drug campaigns since.

"The subsequent Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program implemented by a majority of U.S. school districts in the 1980s has been shown in some studies to have had unintended negative effects ... and in meta-analyses to have had no measurable benefit for youth alcohol, drug, and tobacco use."

That means getting people to make better decisions is more complicated than simply telling them to do so. So what's a better strategy? Making the right choices easier.

If you're a school principal, instead of telling children to eat healthier, you can rearrange your cafeteria, putting salads front and center while sticking cookies in a corner. If you want to work out more, you can put all your gym clothes right next to your door, so next time you get the inkling to work out, you're ready. Or better yet, you can find a physical activity you really like and make it as enjoyable as possible.

For instance, biking for transportation works better for me than trying to exercise. Instead of thinking, "I should continue running on this treadmill, even though it's boring, because it's good for me," I'm thinking, "I've got to get to the library."