The Secret to Making “I Want” More Powerful than “I Won’t”

Nearly every household has a family rebel. My youngest daughter was ours. Her favorite words: “I won’t!”

I remember how these words used to unravel me as I tried to keep her mittens on while walking her to school before I rushed off to work. Or how I struggled to have her drink from a sippy cup because the doctors told me she was “too old” for a bottle. The poor baby was one!

But as the years passed, I began to notice a budding autonomy that was about more than simply getting her immediate needs met. Her “I won’t power,” as willpower researcher Kelly McGonigal calls it, was not only about winning power struggles; it was also about staying away from the distractions of an adolescent brain and an exuberant social circle.

As I silently appreciated her strength of character, I also noticed how staying true to her long-term or values-driven goals was rarely painful for her. And that’s because she had a unique ability to make the present rather pleasant for herself, despite saying no to short-term, emotionally driven impulses.

Studies of the human brain show that we’re a living paradox of impulsivity and wisdom, of immediate desires and future vision, of emotions and plans. What came naturally to my daughter is a skill we can all build on, so we show up fully in life. Here’s how to do it:

Listen to the Impulsive Self

We all have an impulsive, emotional child inside of us that gets excited about eating that decadent chocolate cake when we’re trying to lose a few pounds. And because this child is loud, we get into a power struggle with it and try to force it into compliance by gagging it in the backseat or locking it in the basement. When was the last time that style of parenting actually worked? No wonder your inner child screams even louder and gobbles the entire cake when you aren’t looking. Accepting our impulsive side is a critical step in deterring us from constantly arguing with—and draining—ourselves.

Take Guidance from the Wise Self

We all also have a wiser self within us, which looks after our long-term goals and larger purpose in life. But like any wise person, it doesn’t dole out unsolicited advice, nor yell when the Impulsive Self is in the midst of an emotional tantrum. Instead, when we turn to it for guidance, it simply points us in the direction that’s good for our future self. But here’s the catch. The wise self can be quite a wet blanket. It can’t empathize with the moment-to-moment pain of turning away from immediate goodies, because it lives in the future. And when its suggestions feel painful, we give in to the natural human tendency to avoid pain and approach pleasure. Ever succumbed to an all-nighter of Keeping Up with the Kardashians when you should’ve been working on that important presentation instead? Perhaps your Wise Self’s pill was too bitter to swallow.

Live as Your Paradoxical Self

So if silencing the Impulsive Self only gets us into trouble, and listening to the Wise Self is such a joyless ride, what are we to do? My daughter seems to have figured that one out (though, of course, I’m mentally dismissing all the times when she hasn’t!):

Turn toward your Future Self and enjoy the ride.

Let your Wise Self point you toward your North Star, but allow the Impulsive Self to add delight to the journey. What are the pleasures you can throw in that are aligned with your long-term goals? If you do need to drop those pesky 10 pounds, can you include healthy smoothies and heartwarming stews instead of obsessing about the decadent ice cream in the freezer or the juicy steak on the menu?

German psychologist Marc Wittmann said, “I experience myself as existing with a body over time.” The felt sense of being in the body is as vital to our experience of consciousness as is working toward a goal that pieces together the dispersed fragments of our lives. Living freely and fully is about having the presence to seek the pleasures that are aligned with our future goals.

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