There has always been a certain mystique that surrounds willpower. We are in awe of the athletes who seem to have it in bulk, and we are constantly trying to get more of it for ourselves. We can always use more willpower: for our diets, for our families, for our careers, etc.
Two traits correlate to positive outcomes in these areas of life: intelligence and self-control. While we haven’t yet figured out how to permanently increase intelligence, we have discovered how to improve self-control. This is through the science of willpower.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, explores the principles and driving mechanics behind self-control and discipline.
Where Does Willpower Come From?
“Chips and circuit boards are useless without a source of energy. So is the brain.”
Willpower, page 42
What is the fuel for willpower? Where do we find the strength or the energy to keep ourselves in check?
As it turns out, the source of our willpower comes from food. The calories we intake are the foundation of willpower. More specifically, the glucose that food produces is the crucial element behind willpower. “The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycemia, the tendency to have low blood sugar. Researchers noted that hypoglycemics were more likely than the average person to have trouble concentrating and controlling their negative emotions when provoked. Overall, they tended to be more anxious and less happy than average.”
What advice do Baumeister and Tierney have with regards to food? “Above all, don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight.”
When you’re faced with a stressful meeting, a long day at a new job, or anything that may require willpower, don’t skimp out on food. Indulge yourself in a hearty breakfast and make sure to stock up on the right types of food: “To maintain steady self-control, you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other ‘good’ fats.”
Similarly, don’t deprive yourself of rest and restoration: “By resting, we reduce the body’s demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream. Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control – and, over the long term, a higher risk for diabetes.”
Limit Your Decisions
“When asked whether making decisions would deplete their willpower and make them vulnerable to temptation, most people say no. They don’t realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the car dealer’s offer to rustproof their new sedan.”
Willpower, page 90
Baumeister and Tierney explore various self-control scenarios in Willpower. One example they bring up is former-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s scandal with prostitution, which ended with his resignation once his affairs were discovered. “He knew the scrutiny he was under as governor; he had seen firsthand the risks and legal dangers of prostitution. In his long quest to become governor, he’d built a reputation for political savvy, firm discipline, and moral righteousness. Why, once he got his dream job, did he lose his bearings?”
As it turns out, making decisions actually requires some of the same reserves of energy that our brain uses to manage our willpower. That’s why marathon shopping can be exhausting, and it’s where the stress from leading a company originates.
Making decisions is an inevitable part of life; sometimes, though, it may be a better move to take a break and eat a small snack or catch forty winks before going back into series of decisions you need to be making. One smart decision now could save on many in the future.
Also, spend as little energy as possible on the trivial decisions that don’t make a difference in your satisfaction with life.
“Willpower introduces a fallacy that many of us may be thinking through, called the “‘hot-cold empathy gap’: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation.”
Willpower, page 148
How many of us have put a task off till tomorrow, only to repeat the same delay the next day? (Who really wants to procrastinate?) How many of us recognize that we have to do something that we’re not comfortable with in order to succeed at our goals?
We are not doomed to failure. Instead, all we need to do is outsmart our current selves and take into account the hot-cold empathy gap. In other words, we make it inevitable for us to succeed. “You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible – or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful – to leave the path.”
There are tons of applications out there that will make it a lot more difficult for you to fail. For example, there’s stickK.com, which holds a certain amount of money for you and actually donates it to a friend or a charity (or an anti-charity, an organization that you really despise) if you fail to execute on your plan within a specified time.
Another way to outsmart ourselves would be to make use of our body’s adaptability to habits. Explorer Henry Stanley used to shave every day when he woke up, even in some of the harshest environments in the world. Why? “…orderly habits like that can actually improve self-control in the long run by triggering automatic mental processes that don’t require much energy.”
We all have those things that we cringe when we see ourselves doing, yet often times we’re unable to help ourselves. If you’re interested in how to make discipline work naturally in your life, you need to check out Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower.