It’s a paradox. Sometimes setting a strong intention to achieve a goal actually works against you. It seems logical that if you want to accomplish an objective you need to have a certain amount of willfulness, a persistence to pursue the project to completion. But it turns out from research that the key to success may not be willfulness, but willingness to think of the future as an open question. How you talk to yourself about your goals determines whether you are motivated or inspired. And there is a significant difference between the two.
Here’s the experiment psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed to explore willfulness vs. willingness. He focused on self-talk, that voice in your head that converses with you about your hopes, fears, options, beliefs. Senay wondered what self-talk could reveal about how you shape your plans and actions; he wanted to determine how self-talk might be a tool for exerting your will or for being willing.
He had two groups of volunteers work on a series of anagrams (changing the word order to create a new word, for example, “sauce” to “cause”). One group was the “willfulness group,” which thought about the fact that they would be doing anagrams in a few minutes. Their self talk would be “I will do this.” The second group, the “willingness group,” was told to contemplate whether they would work on anagrams. Their self talk would be “Will I do this?”
The results were surprising. The second group (“Will I do this?) completed significantly more anagrams than the first group (“I will do this.) Why would this happen? Senay hypothesized that questions by their nature speak to possibility and freedom of choice. Thinking about them might enhance intrinsic inspiration, thereby creating a mind-set that leads to greater success.
He tested this hypothesis in another experiment. Telling volunteers they were needed for a handwriting study, he had one group repeatedly write the words “I will” and another “Will I?” Each group then completed anagrams. As before, the volunteers who were primed with the open-minded questions outperformed those who were primed by determination.
Now, for a real life test. Senay ran another version of the study, but instead of anagrams, he measured the volunteers’ intentions to start and complete a fitness program. Again, the “will I” group prevailed.
What does all this mean for you in terms of achieving your New Year’s resolutions? Consider these typical responses from volunteers in the gym test. Those primed with the “Will I?” question said that they went to the gym “because I wanted to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed by “I will” determination stated they worked out “because I would feel guilty and ashamed of myself if I did not.” Herein lies the key. Those who were less successful sought to motivate themselves by avoiding negative feelings of shame and guilt. Those who were more successful found positive inspiration from within.
Why not put this to your own test. With the New Year just around the corner, don’t set resolutions with the determined self talk of “I will.” Instead, state your goal and then continue to ask, “Will I?” This will help you find your internal inspiration rather than depend on the much weaker commitment to change that comes from motivation. Stay open-minded and tap into the empowerment that comes from freedom of choice to increase your probability of success this year.
Scientific American Mind, July 20, 2010