Using Rewarding Activities to Boost Willpower
When you’ve worked hard on something that challenges and depletes your willpower, suppressed appetites and desires can come to the fore. Thoughts such as ‘I deserve a drink/smoke/extra portion/day off work’ can sound plausible, in effect giving you permission to indulge yourself. These are the wrong rewards at the wrong time!
Choosing alternative, more life-enhancing rewards drains unhealthy or unwanted habits of their reinforcement value. Because your willpower is a limited resource, however, striving for one goal means that you may take your eye off the ball: if your willpower is depleted due to sustained effort or stress, a habit you thought you’d conquered can reassert itself.
Flow is being immersed or engrossed in an activity or experience for a period of time. Sports commentators describe athletes as being ‘in the zone’ when they’re performing at a consistently high level for a period of time. Another way to say it is that they’re ‘in the flow’.
Flow experiences reflect your values, motives, strengths and talents. Episodes of flow can induce an authentic natural high that can be life-affirming and promote willpower.
Infrequent or impeded access to flow experiences can lead to negative emotions, including sadness or even depression, and thus weaken your willpower. Identifying activities or pursuits that can deliver the experience of flow is a great way to discover how to reward your efforts.
Amazingly, while going with the flow may require considerable physical and mental energy, it requires very little willpower. Consider the image of a dog being let off the leash in a large field and just running in sheer exuberant joy with apparently boundless energy. Okay, humans are a bit more complicated, but have another look at the ingredients of a flow experience. Now, recall a time when you experienced the joy of flow.
Behaviour that’s not rewarded fades away. Imagine, for example, getting into a taxi and asking about the driver’s day. If you get no response, you may try, at most, one more time, but if you’re met with further silence you’ll read your newspaper or fiddle with your smartphone.
When deploying your willpower to achieve long-term change, it’s essential to reward your efforts along the way. Psychologists call this shaping behaviour, a bit like coaching or cheerleading you in your quest for the ultimate goal.