The American Psychological Association does an annual survey called Stress in America. The most cited reason for not being able to follow through on changes (such as losing weight) is willpower.
What is Willpower?
Willpower is self-control. The ability to delay gratification, a strong determination, or restraint. Willpower is a tool our conscious mind uses to help us control our lives. It carries a negative connotation – deprivation. It is an ineffective way to achieve goals.
Why Willpower is Ineffective
To illustrate why, I’ll share with you what I learned in my neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) training.
Think of your mind as an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, the part that is above water, represents your conscious awareness. In addition to willpower, we also use rational and analytical thinking as a way to control ourselves. Unfortunately, only about ten percent of what we do, we do consciously.
Below the water line lies the rest of the iceberg, our subconscious mind. This accounts for 90% of our behavior. Herein lies our habits, physiological systems (ie. breathing), impulses and emotions and our strategies for dealing with our world.
When we employ willpower to make changes in our lives, such as weight loss, we are only using ten percent of our mind. However, the other 90% is running the show. You are pitting logic (conscious mind) against emotions and deeply ingrained habits and strategies. As a result, willpower is always going to be a struggle.
If you want to elicit real, permanent change, you have to get your subconscious on board and leverage its power.
Imagination is More Effective than Willpower
There is a reason why diets fail and you have trouble breaking bad habits (habits of thought included).With willpower, you are in a constant battle with your subconscious mind. The odds are against you and your subconscious mind is going to sabotage your efforts.
Instead of having your subconscious fight you, (willpower creates stress by exerting force) you want to win it over so it will work for you. How do you do that?
Luckily, we have the perfect tool – imagination. Imagination is positive and affirming. Using our imagination diminishes stress and opens up our creative channels instead of strong-arming us into submission, like willpower.
Change in itself is often stressful. The key is to find the path of least resistance, make it as easy and fun as possible. Imagination and visualization helps us do that. There are a couple of guidelines to make this work:
- Know your “why” – what is motivating you to make this change? What result or outcome do you want? Just because your spouse, boss, parent, etc said you should do it is not enough motivation and chances are you won’t succeed. Make it personal and meaningful to you.
- Make it positive – When you have your why, the reason you want to make this change in your life or why you want to achieve a goal, make sure it’s positive. When times get tough (and there will be some rough patches), your “why” is going to be your life preserver. It’s going to remind you of the big payoff of all this hard work. You’re going to be giving it a lot of focus, so make it positive. If you’re goal is to lose weight because you are tired of being called a fat slob, then all that’s going to do is dredge up bad feelings. And if you’re an emotional eater, next thing you know you’re shoving down donuts as a means to comfort yourself. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of losing weight – having more energy to play with your kids, feeling better, etc.
Once you determine your reasons for making a change/achieving a goal are truly yours and you are motivated to do it, you can enlist the power of your imagination and use visualization instead of willpower.
Note: Imagination/visualization are tools to keep you motivated and should be used in conjunction with action, not instead of. Without action, you aren’t going to achieve anything.
How do you use imagination to help create positive, permanent change? Find a (preferably) quiet place. Giving yourself time right after you wake up or right before you go to bed is ideal but you can do it anywhere – while on the train/bus to work, waiting in line, drinking your morning coffee, taking a shower, etc. Then use your imagination to visualize any of the following scenarios. Make it as real as possible, include sounds, smells, sensations, etc. Evoke as many positive emotions and feelings as you can.
- Visualize your life after you’ve accomplished your goal. If it’s weight loss, imagine how you will look in your new clothes and how confident you feel. Picture your new found energy, imagine just how much better you feel when you can climb up stairs or playing with your (grand) children without getting winded. Focusing on the end result will help keep you motivated.
- Mentally rehearse. Our brains don’t distinguish between real and imaginary events (which is why our bodies react to imaginary fears as if they were really happening). Athletes employ this technique all the time but it can be used for any situation. You can rehearse a speech, visualizing yourself in front of the crowd, appearing confident, enjoying yourself.
- Vent your emotions.Change is hard and one of the things that trips us up is our impulses and emotions. And since what we resist, persists, give them a voice and acknowledge them instead of burying them. If you don’t, eventually they’ll rear their ugly little heads and the littlest thing will push you over the edge. Instead, invite all those emotions in – fear, jealousy, doubt. You can give them names and personalities. Let them have their say and vent. You can do this in your head or you can write it out in a journal, which is my favorite method. The point is, acknowledging them diffuses their power.
When you use these tools, you’ll achieve your goals with less stress because you’re leveraging your subconscious mind with the power of your imagination instead of trying to force yourself through willpower. In other words, which would you prefer, a boss who is a drill sergeant or someone who acts more like a mentor?