Book Wisdom: Willpower - How To Master This Human Virtue

This book is a great look at the psychology of decisions we make. The experiments alone make it worth reading. For example, in order to test willpower, researchers first have to figure out how to deplete it. Here is what they found:

In a well-known experiment, 4 year-old children were left alone in a room, in front of a single marshmallow on a table. They were told that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow until the experimenter returned, they would get two marshmallows. It predicted self-control and success as adults.

Willpower all comes from ONE tank of energy. Your brain doesn’t use different resources whether you are trying to decide what movie to see or whether to resist dessert. It also takes energy to spend time with difficult people because we have to constantly make decisions about how we behave around them. (Do you bite your tongue? Fight for your position? Grow tired of their unique quirks?)

Researchers tested people in different ways, but one of the most common was to have the participants engage in willpower-depleting activities. So they had them make a series of decisions. Chocolate or vanilla? Blue or gold? Tea or coffee? Most decisions were unimportant to the participants. But then afterwards, those who had been forced to make these depleting decisions were much less likely to resist temptation like a bowl of M&Ms, or give up on solving puzzles sooner.

Imagine if you were out for the day shopping for some new clothes. Or at Ikea trying to select a new oven. Or at work making decisions about your new mailing. Or visiting some trying family members. You would eventually encounter what the authors call Decision Fatigue.

Another experiment involved asking participants to not laugh at a comedian on TV — to keep their expressions neutral. This “holding back” and self-regulating (similar to what we have to do around difficult people) also depleted willpower. The participants allowed to laugh and express emotions had a much easier time resisting the M&Ms.

Since willpower comes from all one tank, the authors also recommend that you avoid tackling too many new changes at once. So don’t make a dozen resolutions (especially ones that work against each other, like stopping smoking and losing weight). Tackle one first, and then add in the next one. Avoid difficult people when you are trying to make behavior changes. And now you know what happens when you call off the gym after a tough day at work or decide not to floss before going to bed.

A few more takeaways:

  • Yes, willpower can be strengthened with specific exercises that involve doing something as simple as brushing your teeth with the other hand.
  • To raise successful, happy children, focus on self control and not on self esteem. You can start early, they say, by teaching a child to calm themselves before feeding, and letting them put themselves back to sleep at night.
  • If you sit next to a buffet when dieting, you will eventually deplete your tank for some other situation.
  • Read about the empathy gap that we are all prone to, and how it affects decisions.
  • Make decisions quickly and allowing for change: “I’m not having dessert today, but perhaps tomorrow.” The longer you deliberate, even if you end up deciding to not have dessert, you have already depleted your willpower for later.

Read the book: Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Get Your Point Across Without Annoying Anyone

I love passionate people who are tuned in to the world and what’s important to them.  Whether it is a lively discussion about politics or swapping ideas about a hobby or sports team, it is important to be able to connect with others over what matters to you.

Sometimes we need a little help getting our partner or friend “on board.”  While it is tempting to want them to see or do things exactly as we do, the wrong tactics can stress the relationship and diminish your ability to at least be understood.

Here are some ideas about what to do — and what not to do — to get your point across.

  1. Be Part Of The Crowd First.  In order for someone to be interested in what you have to say, especially if it differs from their point of view, they need to see you as a peer and not a fanatic.  It is easy for people to tune out the beliefs of others when they can label them as being part of the “others.”  Find common interests that you can establish before trying to discuss something more contentious.  Even better, find a common part of the issue that you can agree on. For example, polls show that while people disagree about global warming, nearly everybody feels positively about the idea of energy efficiency.
  2. Take Small Steps And Use Mild Language. Whether you’re trying to get your partner on board with your vacation plan or speaking to a group on behalf of a cause, it is important to take small steps and use gentle phrases.
  3. Never Guilt Trip.  True, you cannot control someone else’s feelings, and guilt is a feeling that each of us must own without accusing another of causing it.  But you diminish your message when you purposely use guilt-inducing tactics.  Research shows, for example, that people respond more to positive messages.  Recently an ad campaign targeted overweight parents by showing kids bragging about how much their parents could eat.  The facts tell us that people are more motivated to change their habits (or their opinions) when we use positive goals (“eat more fruits and vegetables”) instead of shame.

Buzzword: Build Your Social Capital

We’ve heard before how important it is to have a support system of healthy relationships.  I’ve described it as having a garden of friends, each useful and beautiful in his or her own way.  

What isn’t often recognized is the importance of our daily interactions with those we don’t count as part of our support system.  Recently a story from the totally amazing Greater Good Science Center described this positive effect as a result of moms who put kids in daycare.  The brief pleasantries while picking up and dropping off eventually constitute an important interpersonal connection.

Similarly, exchanging short conversations with the check out clerk, the parking attendant, and the mailman are all ways that we can increase our social capital.

Think of social capital like a bank account; it is the collective value of all social relationships.  When it’s full, you are buoyed by comfort of connection.  You are not going to call on your spin class instructor when having a bad day, but knowing that a familiar face is waiting is a reminder to your psyche that you are not alone.

The key I like to focus on is NOT how big your network is.  This is not about quantity of Facebook friends.  Social capital is more about developing a disposition to develop and maintain these connections.  Therefore, we can use opportunities to practice this often.  Did you bank any social capital today?