Features, Life

Oliver Burkeman on… willpower

We all know how to get healthy, says our Brooklyn-based columnist. So why is it so hard to force ourselves to really do it?

For at least two centuries, inventors have been trying to solve one of humanity’s oldest challenges: how to make yourself get up in the morning. They’ve created an alarm clock that dislodges a bucket of water on to the sleeper’s head; another that drops wooden bricks on your face; and one that scurries away across the room, so you have to get up to switch it off. There’s even a prototype that will start shredding your banknotes if you keep snoozing.

The problem is so familiar that it’s easy to lose sight of how bizarre it is. We like to think of ourselves as rational people who can decide on a course of action, then carry it out. Yet if you’ve ever tried to start waking an hour earlier – or going on a daily run, or not checking Facebook at bedtime, or quitting junk food, or resisting the lure of a second cocktail at the end of the working day – you’ll know that’s not how it works. Instead, it’s like we’re two people in one body: a sensible long-term planner, and an impulsive hedonist who has no intention of following orders. When the moment arrives – when the alarm sounds at 6am, when the bartender asks if you’d like the same again – the hedonist simply laughs in the planner’s face.

This is why the self-help advice on healthy living can be so frustrating. You already know what to do. (Green vegetables: good. Exercise: also good. Too many crisps, too much alcohol: bad.) The problem is doing it – thanks to the clashing desires of our long-term and short-term selves. The answer, then, lies not in finding the perfect diet or exercise regime, but in getting these two cantankerous roommates to cooperate.

The situation is so tricky because although the Planner seems to know what’s best for you, it’s driven by reason – whereas the Hedonist runs on emotion, and research suggests that emotion will beat reason every time. In studies, people rate their general satisfaction with life as lower or higher depending on factors such as what the weather’s like that day, or if they happen to be hungry or tired. The dieter contemplating a cheeseburger and fries might be feeling lonely, or upset, or wanting to reward themselves for a hard day’s work. What’s best nutrition-wise is nowhere on their radar.

Fortunately, the Planner has a trick at their disposal: to manipulate the environment so it’s harder for the Hedonist to rebel. If there’s no ice cream in your fridge because you never bought it, you don’t need to worry about bingeing on mint choc chip at 2am: you won’t have the option. If you’ve arranged to meet a friend for your 8am run, you’re much less likely to flake. If you’ve uninstalled Facebook from your phone, the effort of powering up your laptop may be enough to put you off.

This solution is imperfect, though, because it can make you feel like you’re constantly battling with yourself. (The Hedonist does as instructed – but only reluctantly, like a sullen toddler.) So a better option comes from the Buddhist tradition: try mentally labelling the troublesome emotions as they arise. Think, or even say under your breath, a word like “craving” or “discomfort”, then let the emotion go. It’s surprisingly powerful, and it doesn’t involve going to war against your desires.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in bed, or get an extra drink. So accept the desire, feel it, let it go. Then get up, gulp down a glass of water and head out for your run instead.

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