You Have A Chance to Choose!
Do you understand your own capacity for self-control? Do you wish you had more willpower? Wouldn’t it be great if we could consistently:
- Choose the salad instead of the Costco dog?
- Get out of bed when the alarm first goes off?
- Choose kind and calm words in the heat of battle?
- Exercise regularly? Or stay on the treadmill a bit longer?
- Resist the unnecessary purchase because it is out of our budget?
It turns out the we can choose which important decisions to get right!
Roy Baumeister Ph.D. is rightly considered the grandfather of our current understanding of the topic of willpower. Dr. Baumeister’s scholarly publications on willpower have been cited (at last count) more than 170,000 times. We’re fascinated by the allure of willpower. But why?
The original insight by Baumeister and his colleagues (dating back to the late 1990s) was the notion that we can think of willpower much in the same way that we think of a muscle in our bodies. Specifically, his early research demonstrated that our capacity for demonstrating willpower has several predictable characteristics: Willpower…
- Is limited
- Is refillable
- Is expandable
In the ensuing decades, countless other researchers have validating these original hypotheses. Let’s take a brief look at each of Baumeister’s four characteristics of willpower.
Willpower is limited:At any moment in time, we possess a finite capacity for willpower. Thus, if we are long in environments that spend all our willpower, we will eventually succumb to an action, word, or meal that we otherwise have been best served if we had declined. Thus, we should look at our supply of willpower similar to the way we look at our money. Limited, valuable and therefore, needs to be wisely applied or budgeted. When we deploy our money, there are some expenses that we are sure get paid every pay period (i.e. our mortgage, phone, etc…) and there are others that we will wait and see if we have the reserves to allow the expenditure. Similarly, if there is a behavior that you really want to get right every time, you would do well to handle that early and not wait until the end of a long willpower depleting span of time.
This is why we are so much more likely to cheat on our diet, skip our work out or let out angry words toward the end of our hardest work days.
My wife and I will often shop on a Saturday. The last stop on the shopping itinerary is usually Costco. By the time we have arrived at this last retailer, I have exercised willpower by 1) driving civilly in traffic, 2) choosing not to whine about how long we are in some stores, or the crowds, or the prices and 3) resisting the temptation to purchase the 95 things that I really don’t need at Costco (but I do really really want). It is usually by the end of our Costco trip that my willpower runs out.
And what is the first thing I see?
Multiple academic studies have demonstrated that our source of willpower can leak. Stated another way, there are some behaviors or exposures that cause our self-control to drain more quickly. Examples of these include:
- social isolation
- unhealthy diet
So, if we want to choose which tasks that we always get right, we would do well to avoid the environments listed above before accomplishing the most important tasks of our work and home life. Much of this fits our experience. It’s why we should get our important work done first.
It stands to reason then, that the above environments cause willpower depletion more quickly, therefore we can assume that there are counter activities and will stem the leak and allow us a more sustainable power for self-control. In fact, research has borne this out. The following activities had been demonstrated to enhance the output of our willpower:
- stable blood sugar (aka regular and responsible diet)
- relaxation and rest
- social contact/support
These are great ways to refill the willpower tank when we feel the supply lagging. For me, nearly everyday, I can count on needing a refill at 2:30pm.
There is even more good news. Like our muscles, our capacity for willpower and be “exercised” and grown. Research has concluded that small acts of low impact discipline (“repetitions” of willpower when accomplished prior to willpower depletion can actually expand our self-control capacity.
Examples of activities that have been demonstrated to expand our willpower capacity include (if these are not already normal for you):
- No swearing
- Use your non-preffered hand for common functions
- Say “yes” and not “yah”
- Keep track of something that you don’t usually
- Do something new everyday
- Don’t cross your legs
I have tried all of these and I have found them to actually work! I will often shave with my right hand (I am left handed), go for a short walk around the perimeter of the building where I am working every day and track how often I check my email. These are all not my norm, but not so hard that they drain the willpower reserves I need for my day.
Give it a try!