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:

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