Do you have anything you would like to change? Is there something you do too much of? Or, is there something you do too little of? Would you like to change the way you interact with someone close to you, but feel like you are short on the willpower needed to take action? Maybe it feels like you’re in a cycle of trying to change, but it’s going so poorly that you eventually stop seeking change altogether, resigning yourself to the fact that it’s too difficult or time consuming.
We all struggle with changing our long-standing patterns and habits. In my clinical work, people often want to change because of the negative consequences or outcomes of a certain behaviour. For example, during an initial meeting, a client named Brian explained to me that he needed to give up his habit of smoking marijuana daily. His spouse had given him an ultimatum after many years of habitual use and the increasing negative impacts on their family life – basically he needed to change or leave. Change meant removing the daily marijuana habit from his life.
Making a change can also involve forming new habits – in other words, someone may want to walk a different path because they haven’t been taking steps in the right direction. A young woman named Beth who had recently had a baby comes to mind. She wanted to return to school and get further training to secure a brighter future for both herself and her child. However, in order to do this, she first needed to take some actions that she had been avoiding, such as completing her GED and getting some postsecondary training.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, outlines three different types of willpower challenges:
- “I won’t” power challenge refers to anything you want to stop or do less of, as seen in my first example, Brian, who wanted to stop smoking marijuana on a daily basis. Actually, in his case, he wanted to drop the habit “cold-turkey,” and believed professional help could help him power through that challenge. However, maintaining commitment to an “I won’t” change usually means bringing in the other two aspects of willpower challenges. In the long term, we tend to have a ricochet effect with this type of change when we feel we are depriving ourselves of something we enjoy or that helps us in some way, even temporarily.
- “I will” power challenge is applicable to anything you’d like to do more of, as seen in my second example with the young woman who wanted to focus on completing her schoolwork. Beth felt there were some blocks in her way, but found that becoming a mother had inspired her to move through what had been stopping her. We tend to have more success moving toward something if we have enough motivation to sustain our effort. However, it can be difficult to move forward if we feel we need more tools to be successful, or if some of the tools seem out of reach.
- “I want” power challenge is the most important long-term goal to focus your energy on. In other words, this is the bigger picture of the change we want to make. Often this is related to our identity – who we want to be in the world and how we want to be. This focus leads to more sustainable change as it reflects what is most important to us through our values. People who can focus on their preferred future can refrain from the distractions in the present that may pull them back into old patterns.
My client Brian was able to find his “I want” in his love and attachment to his family, which he hoped to keep intact. My other client, Beth, easily found her “I want” in her desire to be the best mother she could be for her child. It’s interesting, however, that despite our best intentions, we can still have roadblocks on the road to change.
I was working with a client, Angie, who wanted to make some changes to increase the success of her business. However, she felt somewhat frustrated and defeated because of her past attempts to make changes that had failed, some of which had to do with her own personal habits. She was struggling with the idea of even setting intentions. She felt as though she was stuck, so I asked her a simple question: “What is the difference between an intention and a plan?” In coming up with her answer, she decided to use the word “plan,” and was able to generate ideas for moving forward without feeling stuck.
There are two aspects that stood out to me as I reflected on our conversation:
- The importance of action. Change requires the necessity of something different to occur. In other words, doing something different or differently than what usually happens.
- The importance of humility. We must remember that we are all human – we are not perfect, and we make mistakes.
The fear of making mistakes, or not doing something correctly (or perfectly) are not valid reasons to avoid making a desired change. Ruminating on past mistakes or overthinking a potential future disaster can freeze us in our tracks. Kelly McGonigal also points out that increasing our stress levels also increases the risk of relapse into unhealthy coping patterns. Therefore, we need to have gentle self-compassion when trying to make a change. It’s not helpful to inadvertently stress over the little setbacks which can lead us to fully abandon our “I want” power on the path to instant gratification, which is used to temporarily reduce our stress response.
Remember, too much short-term “I won’t” and not enough long-term “I want” leads to a boomerang effect. Remind yourself to focus your willpower on important changes in order to have the most fulfilling life possible. Brian, Beth, and Angie were able to not only find their “I want” power, they were also able to make concrete steps toward change while still realizing there would be some bumps along the way.
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