A Word About Willpower

Got big plans and personal goals for the new year? How long is your to-do list for the year?… As a graduate student, I came across research on ego-depletion and accomplishing goals, otherwise known as willpower or self-control and it is fascinating. The ingenious research studies have since been summarized in a great book titled, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, (2011). But for those of you who don’t have the time to read it, here is some of the best advice to remember when setting about accomplishing our most challenging goals for the new year. Growing your willpower or discipline muscles relates very well to training as an athlete.

1. Willpower is like a muscle. Like a muscle, your willpower becomes fatigued with overuse but can also be strengthened over the long-term through exercise. Just like physical training, when you push your discipline muscle at your optimal limit you’ll get stronger and can endure longer with less effort, but it also needs recovery too! What matters most is the exertion. If you struggle with a temptation and then give in, you’ll still be depleted from the resisting and because you gave in. So what are some tips to maximize willpower strength and avoid depletion?

2. Keep your goal list short. You only have one supply of willpower (or energy if you like) so spend it wisely. If you want to make a big changes in your life this year like the common ones of exercising more, eating better/less, overhauling your finances, or keeping a cleaner house, remember you likely won’t have enough willpower in the bank for everything on the list. Each time you are using up willpower to start a new habit, you reduce your capacity for other activities requiring willpower. Therefore, the recommended plan is to pick one resolution and stick to doing it well, that can be enough of a challenge if you want it to last! And the good news is that after 3 weeks to a month, it takes less and less willpower as parts of your new goal work becomes habit and takes less effort.

3. Plan effectively to budget your willpower. When you can foresee extra challenges ahead in your schedule (think high volume training for an athlete), other demands may need to be cut back to get through while staying healthy, in one piece and not too cranky in the end. And more importantly a specific plan (e.g. I will run 45 minutes on Tuesday at the park at noon with Fred) that includes when and where you’ll do something is way more effective than a vague one (e.g. I want to run more this year). Specific plans also avoid what is termed the Zeignarnik effect, referring to how when you ignore unfinished tasks your unconscious mind will keep fretting about them. You may have experienced this when you hear part of a song driving or in passing and then you can’t get it out of your mind for the rest of the day! Finally, if you follow plans that pre-commit you to a strategy (e.g. a dieter that says, “If there is a buffet at the party tonight, I will only eat veggies and lean protein) you’ll have more success developing a routine that turns into a positive habit. The same applies to athletes who practice pre-committing to well-practiced competition plans and strategies, allowing for a more automatic and energy conserving (sometimes in peak performance described as “effortless”) performance.

4. Rest, Food and Cleanliness. Although it may seem obvious, a well-rested will is a stronger one. So is one that is fueled by a bit of glucose (think about your experiences grocery shopping on an empty versus full stomach). Some great studies showed that higher self-control was exerted after having some food. While enough healthy food and good sleep on a regular basis is key, so is a bit of neatness. Some studies also found people to have greater self-control after seeing a clean desk than a messy desk, or even after browsing a neat and well-organized website versus a sloppy one. Environmental cues subtly influence our brain and behavior. Ironically, if you make it a priority to make the bed, wash the dishes, and pick your socks up off the floor you are helping yourself take the strain off of maintaining self-discipline in other areas.

5. Positive Procrastination. If you’re a big procrastinator try using the power of positive procrastination to improve your discipline. For example, some experiments showed that people tempted by chocolate managed to avoid it by telling themselves they’d eat it some other time. The “I’ll have it later” trick works better than trying to deny yourself something all together, and you may not even feel like it later anyway. Don’t feel like getting up in the morning for a workout? Tell yourself you’ll sleep in another day 🙂

6. Monitoring and Rewards. The more carefully you keep track of goals through self-monitoring, writing things down, and carefully tracking your progress with feedback the more success you’ll have. While it can be tedious and boring, there are also plenty of apps and websites to do the work for you these days! On the other side, rewards are important too. Small rewards along the way, as well as big rewards can be significant when achieving a big goal (e.g. an athlete who completes their first big race like a marathon or a smoker who has quit for a full year). Rewards for genuine accomplishments are most effective for promoting self-control in yourself or discipline in your children.

Overall, why is willpower an important virtue to pursue? I’ll finish with a quote from the book mentioned above,

“Self-control is ulimately about much more than self-help. It’s essential for savoring your time on earth and sharing joy with the people you love. One of the most heartening benefits demonstrated in Beaumeister’s experiments is this: People with stronger willpower are more altruistic. They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their homes as shelter to someone with no place to go. Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today. Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.” (p. 260)

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