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In this Conversation, I continue the topic of making better decisions and explore the areas of willpower, grit, and wise reflection.

When was the last time you spread a bit of gossip and knew immediately it was the wrong thing to do?

How many times have you emphasized the importance of good listening skills only to forget it until after you did most of the talking at an important client meeting?

Have you ever been disappointed that you ate something even when you knew it wasn’t good for your health?

These are examples of willpower failure, acting in a manner that’s inconsistent with one’s ideals.

In the book, Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal stresses how we regularly overestimate the strength of our willpower.1 Her book skillfully outlines science-based methods to improve our willpower effectiveness.

Here are some of her tips (it is a great read):

  • Learn from failure,
  • Understand the limitations of willpower,
  • Improve one’s effectiveness by getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night,
  • Meditate,
  • Exercise both your willpower and your body, and
  • Manage, rather than fight, your neurophysiology.

If you follow McGonigal’s suggestions, your willpower will grow stronger. But given the inherent weakness of willpower and the complexity of improving it, is there a more effective strategy to make better decisions?

There is – and it starts with the subtle differences between willpower and grit.  

Willpower is our immediate resistance against temptation, whereas grit is the determination to persist in the face of difficulties. Willpower has the tendency not to show up when needed most and make self-defeating excuses when it does. The nature of grit, on the other hand, is just not to give up. So how do we increase our bucket of grit?

Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford is helpful.2 Her findings demonstrate that an individual’s grit strengthens when they learn about and then embrace a “growth mindset”. This “growth mindset” is defined as the knowledge that one’s brain can be positively altered when one persists in a process of learning something difficult.

This can be transformational, changing one’s attitude from dreading the effort needed to learn something difficult to appreciating it as an important opportunity to enhance the potential of your brain.

What is so appealing about this concept is that it has worked – even with disadvantaged kids. Teaching them the concept itself – that being persistent when learning something difficult increases the potential of their brain – has been shown to significantly improve their learning skills.

Just as our muscles get stronger with pushups, our brains get better at learning when we persist in a difficult task.

However, when I reviewed the three questions at the beginning of this blog, I’m not sure whether improved willpower and grit alone would keep me from slipping up. Here is where activating wise reflection can be key.  We’ve used the acronym HERO to reflect its power.

Halt ­- This is a trigger we propose whenever one wants to optimize one’s actions. A “full stop” before we act can take us from autopilot to a state of awareness.

Energize This next step propels us beyond just trying harder. The inspiration for this comes from Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.  Whether one makes the conscious effort to sit up straight, to take a slow, deep breath with awareness, or to pump one’s fists in a victory celebration, one generates an instantaneous intensity that can be applied to the situation or temptation one is facing.

ResetThe energy created from step two gives us a nimble state of mind from which to direct our focus more effectively.

Optimize Finally, if appropriate, we are ready to successfully execute a well-chosen decision.

An example from my medical practice is illustrative; a patient with a long history of failed diets asked me (at the very end of her appointment when I was already running late) what she needed to do to lose weight.

Rather than respond reactively to her question, I stopped (halted)- took a slow, deep breath (energized) – and became aware of my high level of frustration with the situation (reset).

By this simple reorientation, I was prepared to ask her an “optimizing” question: “Imagine, if sometime in the future you had successfully lost weight, what would you have done differently?”

Her answer was brilliant. She said, “I would stop eating after 8 PM. All too often I end up watching TV and snack until bedtime. The rest of the day, I do pretty good.”

My decision to do a full stop, rather than continue on autopilot, set the stage for a fruitful (and effectively short) dialog. This brief interchange was so refreshing I still remember it ten years later.

To conclude, because willpower has its limitations, adding grit and applying the HERO process to one’s efforts can transform one’s life.

Breakthrough To Better,

1The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal
2Carol Dweck’s TED Talk on the power of believing in self-improvement


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