When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict 'positive outcomes' in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self control.
Willpower is like a muscle, it's a limited resource that once used up needs to recover. It can also be built up and strengthened like a muscle.
Temptations are abundant in our modern lifestyle, with the average computer checking out more than 3 dozen web sites a day!
The average person spends around 3-4 hours a day resisting desires and temptations. (Cake, phones, facebook, spending, coffee, alcohol, gambling, not calling the boss a moron!)
The most common temptations are eating, sleeping and just relaxing.
Almost all social issues stem, at some point, from a lack of self control.
In the 1960's researchers, led by Walter Mischel, tested for self discipline and wanted to see if it had a lasting effect on a range of personal outcomes. The children (all aged 4) were bought into a room one at a time and offered a deal, they could eat one marshmallow now or wait 5 minutes for the researchers to come back and get two marshmallows. The children that were successful did so by distracting themselves completely.
The children that couldn't wait and took the one marshmallow seemed to get in more trouble both in and out of school than the other students. The students that did wait achieved higher grades and better test results consistently, earned higher salaries, had a lower body mass index, and were more popular with peers and teachers.
Self control is better indicator of a student's success than IQ.
NZ study in 2010 followed children from birth to age 32 and found that children with high self control grew into adults that had better physical health, lower rates of obesity, fewer STDs, better teeth, better marriages. Children with poor self control were more likely to wind up poor financially, more prone to drug and alcohol problems, worked in low paying jobs, had more children, more likely to raise kids in single parent homes, and most convincingly, more than 40% of children with poor self control had a criminal conviction by the age of 32, compared with 12% of the high self control group.
Adult brain makes up 2% of body weight and consumes more than 20% of its energy.
Self control is the key to building willpower. When you utilise self control by eliminating temptations, you reduce the need to rely on willpower.
Is willpower more than a metaphor?
Hungry students walked into Baumeisters lab for an experiment. The lab smelled of choc chip cookies, there were three bowls, warm cookies, plain chocolate or radishes, different students were assigned to eat only from one bowl. Every student resisted the temptation in this phase. All students were then given geometry puzzles to work on (which were actually unsolvable) to see how long they persisted before they gave up. The students in the cookie and chocolate group persisted for around 20 minutes, as did the control group (who were hungry but given no food at all), the radish group however lasted only 8 minutes! They had already depleted their willpower and could no longer stick to the designated task.
Ego depletion – peoples diminished capacity to regulate thoughts, feelings and actions. However it doesn't have a great impact on moods or emotions, although people in this state generally feel more tired and experience more sensitivity to emotional ups and downs, and pain sensations were heightened. The catch 22 is that when your willpower is low, you experience your cravings, desires and temptations even more.
Suppressing our emotions depletes willpower.
Two Australian psychologists, Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, looked at an old experiment around clean socks and college grades, initially it was posited that those students that were conscientious and achieved well in school, would also have high hygiene standards. What they uncovered was that when students were dedicated to their studies, other things slipped, their health suffered, their diets suffered, they didn't return phone calls, exercised less and generally their personal hygiene suffered considerably. During exam periods, student's willpower was so depleted that they ended up studying even less, drinking and socialising more, over sleeping and spending money impulsively.
The more willpower people expended, the more likely they were to give in to the very next temptation that came along.
Willpower is used for three things 1. Making decisions 2. Avoiding negative temptations 3. Forcing positive action.
Where does the power in willpower come from?
The brain needs glucose to function; all food is transformed into blood glucose to fuel our body.
Hypoglycemia is the condition of low blood sugar levels. They tend to have more trouble controlling emotions, thoughts and actions and are more anxious and less happy on average.
One study found 'below average' glucose levels in 90% of juvenile delinquents recently taken into custody. Glucose tests alone predicted with 80% accuracy which criminals would go on to commit violent crimes.
Diabetes is when there is excess glucose in the blood stream which isn't/ can't be used as energy. Diabetics tend to have more explosive temperaments, get distracted more easily, and have more issues with alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression.
PMS diverts glucose to the reproductive organs, hence leaving a shortage for the brain, and results in low self discipline and more erratic behaviour.
No/ low glucose means no willpower and your brain knows sweet things will give it an immediate boost, hence the cravings for chocolate and all things sweet!
Eat whole foods and avoid sugars. Whole foods are like providing a big log to the fire; sugar is like throwing paper on a fire.
A brief history of the 'To Do' list from God to Drew Carey.
Benjamin Franklin created a list of virtues on a monthly chart that he ticked off when he felt he displayed them. He knew that the development of his character was the most important 'skill' that he could learn and dedicated time and energy towards it.
Better to have no goals than conflicting goals. When goals are in conflict you 1. Worry a lot, 2. You get less done and 3. Your health suffers, physically as well as mentally. The more the goals conflicted the worse these effects became.
Willpower depletion leads to taking more short term options and quick wins. Low income earners have a much shorter term vision than higher income earners.
Proximal (short term) objectives provide the opportunity to build self discipline, self efficacy and confidence. People with these goals outperformed others with distal (long term) goals consistently.
Create a mind like water. Throw a small pebble into a pond, the water reacts perfectly to the pebble, it's totally appropriate to the force of the pebble, it doesn't over or under react.
When you make an agreement or commitment and don't keep it you undermine your own self trust, making self discipline just a little harder the next time.
When suffering 'monkey mind' empty your head of all distractions. The Zeigarnik effect states that once 'half finished' business is written down it can stop whirring about your head causing distractions.
If something takes less that 2 minutes don't put it on a list, do it immediately.
Being organised takes much of the stress out of your brain as it doesn't have to remember everything and constantly remind you to 'get things done.'
The more decisions you need to make the more your willpower becomes depleted. Common strategy used when buying a car, they give you a hundred irrelevant choices from steering wheel type, to colour of floor mats as they know when you get to the big choices (that mean big dollars for them) you're less likely to resist.
When looking at judge's likelihood for issuing parole for inmates they found prisoners who appeared early in the morning had a 70% chance of being given parole, while the last cases in the day only received parole around 10% of the time. Before lunch was 20% chance, but after lunch, when their glucose and hence willpower was restored, they odds were 65%.
Decision making depletes willpower, and once willpower is low, decision making becomes close to impossible.
Speed dating is much more successful than online dating as there are fewer options and less time to 'think' over the decision.
Where have all the dollars gone?
Neuro-economists monitor the brains of people who are shopping.
Self awareness involved comparing the actual self to the ideal self. Evolved to support self regulation and self discipline.
When people were given a small mirror on their desk at work they were much more likely to behave according to the way they wanted to think of themselves. IE less Facebook like, less procrastinating and stuffing about.
There is a strong link between self awareness and self control.
Thomas Jefferson noted done every penny he earned and spent, he knew if he kept the pennies in order the dollars would look after themselves.
When you begin to budget, only change around 20% at a time, otherwise it's too big of a shock to your lifestyle and too big a temptation on your willpower.
Set a goal, monitor your behaviour and find someone to be accountable to are the first big steps towards developing self discipline.
David Blane makes a living performing outrageous tasks involving mammoth amounts of self discipline. Things like standing within a block of ice for 63 hours, holding his breath under water for 17 mins etc. He found the willpower during the stunts to do amazing things, but at home couldn't resist the cookies in his cupboard. In fact, he didn't even have the discipline to fill in the paperwork for the Guinness book of records.
More important than willpower is developing small habits that eliminate the need for self control and having the foresight (pre-commitment) to remove temptation. IE, just don't buy the cookies.
Exercising self control in one area of life (eg to smoke less) resulted in greater self control in every other area of their lives.
Outsmarting yourself in the heart of darkness
In 1887 Henry Morton Stanley went up the Congo River in search of new and undiscovered lands. (He also in 1871 found Dr Livingstone in the wild) he was known for his complete self discipline and called Bula Matari, breaker of rocks by the natives for his hard work, commitment and his equaniminity under horrific conditions. He even shaved every day, even while under attack and starving, while those around him died of dysentery and other tropical illness, this simple routine built self discipline and eliminated the need for willpower. Stanley's men had not faced these conditions before and were under constant temptations and horrific conditions, they were condemned for raping women, drinking, gambling and committing terrible violent acts against the natives. They were all in the hot phase of the hot/ cold empathy gap. He was quoted as saying 'self control is more indispensible than gun powder.)
The hot/ cold empathy gap is the distance between rationally deciding that you're not going to eat chocolate anymore (emotional cold and very logical), then after 5 days of no chocolate, a rough day, a few wines and a box of chocolates opened at a party, all of a sudden the reality of the 'no chocolate' goal seems ludicrous.
College students were given a range of sexual questions including 'would you ever have sex with a woman 40 years older, could you be attracted to a 12 year old girl, would you ever say 'I love you' so you could get women into bed. In a 'cold' state in the lab they all answered as expected, the scores were very low across the board. The students were then told to go home and masturbate while answering the same questions online. The results were considerably higher. Showing the hot/ cold empathy gap.
Successful people rely on positive habits not willpower. They use their self discipline to develop habits that build up over time.
Bright lines are commitments we make that are irrevocable. Often made in the presence of a 'higher power' or god they guide us constantly in the right direction.
Raising strong children
The self esteem movement is creating a society that doesn't believe it has to work or help others or contribute in any way. In fact they believe there already perfect, no effort is required. When the going gets tough, they decide they don't need to bother, if other people can't appreciate them the way they are, then that's their problem. This is a narcissistic attitude.
Two year old Chinese children are expected to have levels of self control of the average 4 year old American child. This is leading to better grades, less conflict, higher IQs, more diligence etc.
The three facets of punishment are speed, severity and consistency. The last being by far the most important.
Children need and want clear rules and the clearer the better.
Children raised by single parents tend not to do as well in life as those from two parent homes. The study published in 1958 was scientifically sound however was hushed up as there are very few single parents with better options and they generally have more than enough to worry about without feeling like a failure as a parent before they even started. Largely due to the single parent being busy running the house, so their levels of discipline etc were lower than two parent homes. Two eyes were certainly better than one. Keeping in mind Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama were both raised in single parent households.
The more children are monitored the more self control they develop.
Praise encouragement and effort not skills and achievements. Build self control with small steps and tasks and work towards creating positive habits in children rather than just building self esteem.
The Perfect Storm of Dieting
If you're serious about losing weight permanently there are three golden rules.
1) Never ever go on a diet
2) Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food for that matter
3) Weather your judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.
Oprah Winfrey in her early career went from 125 to 140 pounds, and thus started her very long struggle with managing her weight. She has extraordinary self control in all areas of her life, and access to the best people in the industry yet is still overweight.
The Oprah paradox is thus – once your body has been on a diet a few times it signals the brain 'hey, don't lose any weight, winter is coming' and so no matter how little she eats and how much she exercises the weight gets harder and harder to shift.
Use small bouts of self control to create incremental positive habits, then build these habits into a routine and that routine, maintained for 12 months is going to result in a very different physique than now.
The 'what the hell' effect comes into play when a dieter or someone trying to be mindful of what they are eating comes unstuck and eats the 'outlawed' food. They then say to themselves 'what the hell, the diet's done for today' and go finish off the rest of the cake, three packets of chips and have 5 beers to wash it done. The initial lapse was never the problem, the problem is really what happens after the 'what the hell' moment.
Best dieting mindset is to tell yourself, 'If I still feel like it later, then I'll have some'. This builds self discipline without using willpower up or actually denying the desired food. It's simply delaying the gratification. Often when later does come about, they are so pleased that they resisted the initial temptation, that they choose not to have it at all, they have also broken the 'what the hell' effect.
The dieting catch 22 – when you starve your body of food, your body and brain in particular craves glucose so it can function properly. You're willpower is already depleted, and you're cravings and emotions become heightened. In order to resist food you need willpower, but in order to have willpower, your brain needs food.
Weigh yourself daily, or have another measure that becomes a routine, it's not something to get fixated on, rather a guide to weather your on or off track.
The future of Willpower – more gain, less strain
Willpower is finite
Set up your life with positive habits so you don't need to rely on your willpower
95% of people admit to procrastinating at least some of the time, in today's society with temptations so prolific it's only going to get harder to build self discipline.
Workers estimate they waste around 25% of on job time.
Focus on one thing at a time. When implementing change, narrow your focus and ensure that change is entrenched into your life before setting another goal.
Every time you make a decision, resist a temptation or make yourself take positive action you're depleting your willpower. Be mindful of what decisions and temptations you can simply eliminate by creating habits.
Willpower depletion can be noticed by an inability to make simple decisions, the volume of emotions is turned up, and a general lethargy around taking action.
When you make a choice your brain actually silently grieves the loss of the other alternative.
Pick your battles and make sure your willpower is fueled up before tackling the big ones.
Plan around willpower. If you have a huge day at work plan dinner and the evening routine before you leave the house, that way when you walk in the door no thinking or decisions are required, you can literally go into autopilot mode, and your choices are all positive as you've made them in a 'fuelled up' state.
Get organised and use a 'to do' list. It frees up mental energy for other things. Set three intentions for the week and email a friend to hold you accountable to them.
The planning fallacy states that we generally underestimate time, energy and money to meet goals. When you're aware of this you can adjust your goals accordingly.
Things will always seem better in the morning, sleep refuels your willpower. So for anything challenging, best to schedule it into your morning routine.
Pre-committment – Odysseus tying himself to the mast so he couldn't hear the tempting women that would lure him onto the rocks, his crew stuffed wool into their ears so they couldn't hear at all.
Monitor your behaviour, keep a record or a chart, get an app, but make sure you're able to review your progress and that others can too.
Reward small achievements rather than waiting to achieve the final goal. It's the small steps that build positive habits.
The 'yes...dam!' effect occurs when we agree to something in the future that we would never agree to if it were tomorrow, then when we get to the event we say 'dam' I wish I never said yes.
Poor self control is central to all personal and professional problems.
People with stronger willpower are more altruistic, more likely to donate to charities, do volunteer work and be kind to others generally.
Willpower is the virtue that sets our species apart from others; it's also the key to our success or failure!
This was a really great book filled with the science behind our decisions. Great information put together in a really practical way. 8/10.