Willpower

Following on from the recent post on mindfulness, here’s another in my “self-help guru” (obviously I’m not) series. This time, I’m writing about willpower, based on the book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength (by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney) which I recently finished reading. I have some reservations about the book (see my Amazon review for details), but thought I’d share anyway, as it contains some very interesting findings which so far I have managed to put to good use.

The book makes the case for the fascinating theory of Ego Depletion (a theory which seems to be the baby of Baumeister and his collaborators). This states (more-or-less) that exercising willpower is tiring: if we exercise willpower over one part of our life, we may not have enough energy left to be strong-willed elsewhere. The book gives reams of scientific evidence to support this view, although I have since learned that this evidence is not quite so widely accepted as the authors would have you believe. Still: interesting, and possibly true. And, as the book rightly points out, willpower is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and success in an individual. So who wouldn’t want more of the stuff?

What practical lessons can we draw from this? Well, one is that we should conserve willpower for the times when we really need it. Choose your battles. But additionally, recognise scenarios which require mental strength and try to make them less challenging (mindfulness is a very useful tool for helping you to recognise which scenarios require more mental strength). I’m not just talking about epic battles of the will (although the book includes some interesting examples of these, including David Blaine, who can successfully will himself to go without food for 44 days when he chooses); as with mindfulness, drip drip drip, small changes can build into a mighty force, and if you can conserve a little willpower by simplifying small decisions then this may leave you with more oomph to handle the big stuff.

To give one example, summoning the mental strength to decide what to do in a given situation can be stressful; if you are able to plan that situation in advance, you remove the need to think about it at the time, and thus conserve a little willpower for other tasks. I’ll demonstrate how I’ve been using this in my own life: I have always resisted routine (and, as a result, am forever forgetting to brush my teeth – yeah, I know), but I have recently enforced a morning drill on myself. Get up. Go to the loo. Take my tablets & inhaler. Brush teeth (with my left hand – more about this below), shave (again, left hand), shower, weigh myself, get dressed, breakfast and a nice cup of tea, pack my bag and go out to work. All of these things. In that order. Every day. (Well, at weekends perhaps skip the work in favour of walking the dog). So far, so mundane. But the weird thing I’ve found is that following this regimented process leaves my brain so much freer to think about other things. I’m no longer worrying “did I forget to brush my teeth?”, and by the time I leave the house I feel completely set up for the day.

This also has big implications for dieting (of which, more in my next blog post). Well, firstly the book says that you shouldn’t diet, because the thing which (allegedly) gives you the energy required for willpower is glucose, blood sugar, and if you restrict your intake of food then you are apparently weakening your ability to say no. This makes it more likely that your diet will fail. But one strategy which proved successful in experiments was to lay out clear ground-rules for any troublesome situation before you encounter it. Don’t be unrealistic (in fact, you’re advised not to alter your normal habits by more than 20% if you want to be successful), so for example if you are going to a party don’t say “I won’t eat any of the food there”, but say “I will allow myself to eat one plateful of food, but no seconds”. Don’t say “I’m not going to drink”, but do say “for every two alcoholic drinks I will have a glass of water”. Ration your willpower and plan tricky decisions in advance, and you stand a better chance of success in the long run.

Finally, it is important that you learn to spot signs which indicate that your willpower is waning (again: mindfulness helps here). It turns out that one key sign is an increase in emotions – whether they be happy or sad; if you find yourself more tearful or ecstatic than usual, it could be that your blood sugar is running low (this got me onto thinking about bipolar disorder…). In fact, the book suggests that low blood-sugar is the cause of PMT: when much of a woman’s energy is devoted to her reproductive cycle and she may not have as much to spare for conscious decision making, and may crave quick energy-givers such as chocolate. And sleep is as important a component of willpower as glucose: if you feel tired, well then… you need more sleep. This sounds trite, but how many people these days actually bother paying attention to the signals that their bodies send out, rather than knock back another coffee or Red Bull. (It turns out that stimulants are not a great aid to willpower although, at least in the short term, sugary snacks are – inasmuch as they boost blood sugar levels and get more energy to the brain).

Oh, and that left-handed tooth-brushing and shaving? Well, one study demonstrated this was a way of increasing the “stamina” of our willpower. I took that with a pinch of salt but, what the hell, it’s got to be worth a try, right?