What is willpower and how can we develop it?
Willpower is having a sense of personal agency. It refers to our ability to delay gratification and focus on the task because we want to achieve a long-term goal. However, if we are tired it will be difficult to maintain our efforts. Also, it may be more difficult to focus on the task when there are a number of immediate distractions. To make progress we need to maintain our energy level and manage or remove the distractions (Baumeister, 2011).
We can create a mental representation of the goal we want to achieve (think about each step leading to your goal) and create our own self-instructions (Mischel, 1996). For example describing the process – a series of steps to get the task done – so that we know in detail what we need to do from step to step. By having a visual representation of the process it allows us to persevere with our efforts while keeping the goal in mind. It is important to have the expectation that we will complete the process, and that we will eventually get the reward that is important to us.
A practical approach to build confidence in our ability to persevere is to take a moment to reflect on past experiences related to the task: Did you have a challenging time in school/college? Did you find it difficult to get on with assignments? Perhaps you got feedback that said you needed to make more effort or would not achieve your potential. To manage these thoughts and feelings you can remind yourself that the past does not determine the future, and also keep in mind that others did not have the full picture of your experience of doing academic work. Perhaps back then there were difficulties not easy to express to others, or it was not clear how studying would become important to you. Now you are in a different situation where you can focus on how you want to see yourself acting: are you someone who wants to complete tasks and achieve goals? You can create a new perspective that will help you move forward. Decide that you are a person who can persevere with efforts, can tolerate uncertainty, and can acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the learning process.
What can you do to maintain your efforts and make progress?
When you become aware of a distraction, and feel the impulse to do something else, notice your feeling and pause. Take a moment to remind yourself of what is your priority. To increase your ability to focus and concentrate on the task remind yourself of the reasons why you’re doing the task, bring your attention back to the page and keep going. As you practise this technique you will gradually strengthen your capacity to manage distractions.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power
to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
To make progress in changing our behaviour we need to pay attention to our thoughts and actions. If we know we get easily distracted, or find it difficult to delay gratification (doing easier and more pleasant things) create plans of what you will do when the distractions happen. Do this before you start working on a task (Baumeister, 2011).
By pre-planning how you will structure your time you will know when you can have your break/reward. This will help to sustain your concentration while you are working. If you get distracted because you are finding the task too hard, remind yourself that it is part of the learning process. To restore energy take a 5 minute break, go outdoors, stretch and move. Have some water to keep hydrated. Then return to the task for another 25 minutes. As you increase your capacity to concentrate you can increase the time of your study periods, although always taking breaks to move and stretch as this is essential to maintain your energy level.
We need motivation to maintain our concentration. To be intrinsically motivated to take action we need to believe that we are capable, and that we can make choices. We can do this by focusing on what is important to us, and engaging in a task that we consider meaningful. This is having an internal locus of control: we do something because we feel we have chosen to do it and believe we can persevere with our efforts. When we make mistakes these are tolerated and understood as part of the process – as opportunities for learning. Nurturing this internal drive increases our ability to sustain our efforts and allows us to create habits that support our goals. This is the key to self-determination and resilience (Deci, 1995).
We like to be autonomous and feel that we make choices to do things that we are motivated by, but when revising for exams, writing an essay or dissertation it may feel like an obligation. To stimulate your motivation to do your work reframe this task as a choice, and keep what you want to achieve in mind. If you find you get distracted and do not work consistently on your revision/dissertation identify what other things that are distracting you, notice them, pause, then identify whether these are new priorities you need to pay attention to, or are they things that you can let go so that you can get on with your work. Make a list of the benefits that persevering with the task will bring you. As you make gradual and consistent progress your confidence in your ability to get things done will increase.
Strategies to get started and get things done:
- Set goals: these need to be very specific so that it is clear what you want to achieve in the short-term (this could be within an hour, a day, a week). Describe exactly what you need to do, or what you would like to achieve realistically within the specified time. Draw up a plan of your goals, from larger ones to very small ones. For example: the larger goal may be to revise for an exam, then the smaller goals can be the different topics in the module, and then small steps for each topic within the module.
- Commit to taking action: make the choice to start with a specific goal, and decide that you will follow through. Start with the small steps and work your way through each one. Keep in mind a mental representation of the goal: visualise what you are working towards, including each step in detail of how you will go about doing the task.
- Manage your expectations: sometimes we have self-doubt, or worry whether we can achieve the task when we have so much to do, and so many different modules/courses to revise.
Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, that even if the material is difficult this is expected as it is new material. To increase the strength of your decision to get on with the task by viewing yourself as someone who follows through with tasks.
Persevering with your efforts to understand the material will gradually build your academic confidence. Remind yourself that you have prepared for exams before now, and although difficult you got through them. If you think your work is not good enough, rather than evaluate yourself negatively/lose hope that you can do it, focus on identifying what you can do different: identify one thing that you can do to improve/change to make progress in this moment. Then move on to the next step.
- Create meaningful rewards: We are more able to sustain our efforts if we develop an abstract representation of the reward to keep us going while working. For example imagining the good feeling of having persevered with your efforts and completing the first step. Decide what you will do when you complete it, maybe speak with a friend, go out doors for a walk, or watch a episode of your favourite series. Make sure you create a limited period of time for your break so that the reward does not take time away from starting your next step.
- Create pre-plans: IF (distractor) happens I will (action you will take). We increasingly have difficulties in maintaining focus as digital technology makes distractions easily available. For example, if you feel tempted to check the notification on your phone, and you know that it is difficult to leave it, plan beforehand what you will do so that it does not interrupt your concentration (maybe turn your phone off for half an hour, or leave it in a drawer out of view). We can also become distracted by the discomfort of the moment, such as feeling tired, frustrated, or hungry. You can prepare for these situations by having healthy routines and eating well so that you have the energy to manage what may seem attractive distractions. This in turn, will increase your confidence in your ability to focus, and reduce the worry about future negative scenarios.
- Use the Pomodoro technique: it consists of creating study periods of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break by using a clock/stop watch. It is sufficient time to make progress and allows to restore energy at regular intervals. We are more likely to get started on a task and maintain our concentration when we know that the break will come soon. During your break move, stretch, and drink some water. You can repeat this two or three times and then have a longer break.
Notice how this practise can promote having a sense of achievement when you can see you are making progress.
- Suspend your evaluation of your work: The key is not to evaluate your work while you are focused on the task. We can be very self-critical when we make a small mistake, or think it should be done differently, or if we start to compare with how others seem to be doing it better. When you notice critical thoughts, pause, take a deep breath and remind yourself that the priority is to make progress. View the task as a draft, for now. The priority is to make progress to complete a first draft. Then, leave the task for a while so that you can have some distance from it to be able to evaluate it more objectively when you read it again to proof-read, and edit where necessary.
- Make the task important: Give the work you will do high significance. This will allow you to prioritise it when distractions that may be easier or more pleasant appear.
- Repeat behaviours: Create a routine, and persevere with your efforts. Repetition creates familiarity, and it strengthens motivation to complete the task/achieve goal.
- Develop your support network: Find a study buddy or buddies, other students who also want to make progress with their work. Maintain contact with those who know you and encouraged you. Let them know about your plans to study so they can support your decisions to prioritise your work as it is important to you.
- Reflect on your progress: Notice and acknowledge the work you have done: with each step you move forward. As you see the progress you are making, and reflect on how you are maintaining your efforts, you can update your self-image to that of someone who perseveres and is committed to achieving goals. As you see your progress it will support your motivation to continue with the task. The more steps you do, without pressurising yourself, it will increase your ability to concentrate and stick to the task until you eventually complete it (Young, 2017).
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Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.
Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation. Penguin Books: New York.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.
Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford: Elsevier. pp.887-893.
McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.
Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.
Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.