There’s a Name for That: Willpower Paradox

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A large body of research indicates that internal motivations are more effective than external ones when it comes to getting things done. Here’s how to use those findings to achieve success.

By Peter C. Baker

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(Illustration: Elias Stein)

Have you ever tried to motivate yourself — to improve your diet, say — with confident bluster? I will quit carbs! Or: I will bike to work instead of drive! I will stop rolling my eyes at the yoga instructor! It turns out making such self-assured pronouncements might not be the best inspiration. Instead of I will, you might try something a little more speculative: Will I?

A 2010 study led by the psychologist Ibrahim Senay compared the impact of declarative (I will) and interrogative (Will I?) self-talk. Participants who prepared to solve an anagram problem by thinking about whether they would work through it outperformed those who simply resolved that they would. Similarly, those who prepared by writing Will I? outperformed those who wrote I will.

Writing in Scientific American, the journalist Wray Herbert took the study as proof of a “willpower paradox,” in which focusing directly on your goal — Herbert uses the example of recovering from alcohol addiction — could be less effective than asking questions about how you might achieve it. But why?

A large body of research indicates that internal motivations (like pride in a job well done, or a sense of purpose) are more effective than external ones (like gold stars or demerits from your teacher). Senay theorized that questions — which, by their nature, prompt answers — might send people’s minds, however subconsciously, on the prowl for internal motivations.

Indeed, in another variation of the experiment, participants who wrote Will I? not only expressed stronger intentions to exercise during the following week, but also reported stronger internal motives.

So, next time you want something — even from yourself — consider asking a question, rather than giving an order.

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