Friday, November 22, 2013


Many of my clients  struggle to meet long-term goals, often saying: "I should have had more willpower, I shouldn't have had that cookie/third beer/binge of Homeland".  I have never found the concept of "willpower" to be a helpful lens through which to support clients, so I was grateful to read the NY Times Sunday Review opinion piece: Your So Self-Controlling, by Maria Konnikova (11.18.13) because it sheds new, helpful light on human behavior and goals. 

Konnikova cites research that attributes falling short of reaching goals not to a lack of willpower, but to a very rational (and I believe evolutionarily sound) response based on our often faulty perception of time. She uses some new and some famous old psychology studies to argue that the more uncertainty about time involved in waiting for a "reward" or attaining a goal, the more difficult it becomes to reach that goal. One study found that when we wait for a long time to meet a goal or get a reward, rather than believing we will meet our goal soon, we actually think we will have to wait longer! This thinking may have been life-saving for hunters in Paleolithic times when deciding whether to pursue a different wild animal for food, but in modern society it is often not helpful. 

The article may be interesting to you if you are a research geeks like me, but in case you're not, I will net it out for you: in general, the more uncertainty involved in the length of time required to meet a goal, the worse we are at waiting for a reward or continuing to work towards that goal. That uncertainty of a reward makes waiting and goal setting difficult. It's not about willpower as much as it is about a complex combination of life experience, rational calculations, style of thinking, temperment,  and evolutionary biology.

Want to make the best use of this information? Be compassionate with yourself AND  get educated about realistic timing regarding your particular goal. Ask a wise friend, coach, nutritionist, therapist or personal trainer for examples of time frames that have successfully worked for others who are similar to you in age, personality, and lifestyle. 

 The least helpful approach is to get down on yourself by perceiving yourself as "weak" or lacking "willpower".  Be realistic. Trying to cut back your alcohol intake? Watching your diet? Be more patient with your kids?  Set your goals to maintain between Thanksgiving and New Year's. This approach is wise. Why? You will probably get upset with yourself if you don't make progress, which will make it more likely that you will give up altogether. However, you will be encouraged and continue to be motivated if you make gains.

 Happy Holidays!

Goal-setting 101
1. Make your goals specific
2. Make your goals challenging 
and exciting, not excruciatingly difficult
3. Set long-term goals and break them down into short-term steps
4. Be realistic about time by doing research regarding your goal and time frames 
5. Build in buffers for the unexpected- illness, family drama, work demands 

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