It’s been a long arduous day at work, where you resisted the constant urge to tell your boss what you really think of them. You were good and woke early to go for a run, you had a healthy breakfast and even chose the salad bar for lunch.
Why is it then, that after all this, you still somehow end up slumped in front of your computer at midnight, chocolate smeared hands and bloodshot eyes as you scroll through Facebook? All self control thrown out the window.
“When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict ‘positive outcomes’ in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self control. So far researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self control.” – from Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
We live in a world that focuses on intelligence, however it is quite difficult to change your IQ. But self control is another matter.
I’ve been reading Willpower by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney. The biggest point from the book is the idea that our willpower, or self control, is a finite resource that get’s used up throughout the day. Meaning as you make decisions and resist temptations throughout the day you are depleting your willpower. Which is fine, however if you wake to a chaotic morning, chances are you won’t have much willpower left by that afternoon to make the important decisions in your business, relationships, parenting, health etc. Which can create some major issues in your life.
I experienced this first hand just recently when I changed my diet and experienced a return of a skin condition (psoriasis) which I suffered for much of my life before healing myself of it nearly 3 years ago. With the return of this itchy irritating condition, I noticed some fascinating changes. Suddenly I was getting angry over trivial things, such as someone driving slow in front of me, or my favourite food not being on special. Minor, unimportant things suddenly got to me…which left me wondering what the hell was going on!?
While reading ‘Willpower’ it dawned on me that my self control was being chewed up by the constant need to resist scratching or itching my skin. This minor detail was chewing up my willpower reserves, which translated into a lack of self control in other areas. Suddenly I was staying up late watching movies, even though I wanted to sleep. It was fascinating!
So willpower is finite.
The good news is: Willpower is like a muscle.
It can be trained to become stronger with greater endurance.
This has some pretty big ramifications in our world.
If you’re struggling with the constant bombardment of temptations in your life, you may want to invest in this book, it has a bunch of fascinating ideas on how you can improve the strength of your willpower.
A simple shortcut to replenishing your willpower is to never make decisions while hungry.
You’ve seen the Snickers ad, well they’re spot on, you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. This is because the brain consumes a huge amount of glucose to fuel it’s decision making processes. When your body is running low on glucose, these processes are weakened or impaired. Which means you make more short sighted decisions. You begin to view the world like a drug addict: in a study of delayed gratification and future perspectives, drug addicts were found to view the future as the next hour, or less, and were more willing to accept an instant cash award, rather than wait a week for a larger reward, which was the more intelligent financial decision. So when the brain is low on glucose it gains the attention span and mental processing power of a crack addict…
I don’t recommend making decisions or attempting to exercise willpower while hungry, for this reason.
On an interesting side note. There was a study on Parole hearings, which found that the inmates had a higher chance of a positive outcome if their hearing was on early in the morning, or right after a break which included a meal.
Apparently, even Judges aren’t immune to the effects of depleting willpower.
Another way to ensure you have ample supplies of willpower for the big decisions that matter, is to limit the number of choices you make in the morning, if you don’t have to choose what to have for breakfast, you’ve just conserved your willpower.
When I was hitchhiking a general morning for me would entail waking abruptly on someone’s couch or in an unfamiliar environment, once I’d worked out where I was, I’d then work out what I was going to do for that day, and what I was going to feed myself for breakfast. But first I would have to find my pants and discover my way to a supermarket, where I would browse aisles looking for the cheapest combination of items which could pass for food. Then grappling with a foreign language while figuring out which coins and notes to give.
What a mess!
I had set up my morning so that there was an array of multiple choice questions, each leading to another shit storm of possibilities. Every option and decision chewed my precious reserves of willpower.
No wonder by the time the sun set I had achieved absolutely nothing, other than finishing off a bottle or two of red wine. There was no long term vision there for me, all because I didn’t know what I was going to have for breakfast.
Sounds a little over the top, but I hear it from achievers all the time: they minimise the amount of decisions they make in the morning. Their morning is on auto pilot, saving precious willpower for the big things which move us forward in life.
So eat well, and automate your mornings to enjoy improved willpower throughout the day.
Use this willpower to resist the cake section of the buffet (or resist the buffet all together), resist the overwhelming urge to check Facebook and instead make those uncomfortable phone calls you’ve been putting off, or maybe just use that extra willpower to hold your tongue when you’re asked if ‘this outfit makes me look fat?’.
The power is all yours once you begin strengthening this long neglected muscle.
And in today’s world where temptation is thrown at us from every angle, we could all use a little extra willpower.