We all have some aspect of ourselves we want to change, whether it's something minor like better meeting deadlines at work or something major like not spending the mortgage on a new wardrobe. Yet, as the old adage goes, old habits die hard, and when it comes to change, failure is more common than we'd like.
If that sounds familiar, you might take comfort in the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Press, 2011), written by Florida State University social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, and New York Times science columnist John Tierney. The two men have spent decades studying, and writing about, human nature and what leads some of us more easily than others to fall prey to temptation, and how that temptation can lead to failed marriages, unhealthy diets, and even major Wall Street financial crises like the one in 2008.
Nowadays, our willpower is being taxed more than ever. "Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant through the click of a mouse or a phone," the authors write. "You can do enough damage in a 10-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year." All those temptations put a huge strain on our limited supplies of willpower. In fact, people are tempted in some way every four minutes, Baumeister has found. That’s a total of four waking hours every day. In his studies, he's found that 50 percent of the time, we give in to those temptations.
Why are we so weak? You can blame a lack of self-control, but there's really a lot more at play, Baumeister says. For one, contrary to what you might think, you don't have an unlimited supply of willpower. And a long day of decision making can deplete what little bit we do have. "In the same way that self-control uses willpower, making decisions uses it also," he says. "People often describe it by saying their brain is fried or something like that." So when you spend all day at work making decisions, or exerting a lot of mental energy on writing a report or a presentation, your brain runs out of resources to resist temptation, making it a lot easier to run through the drive-thru to get dinner, rather than expend more mental energy trying to decide what to cook when you get home. Baumeister calls it "decision fatigue," and marketing professionals love to capitalize on it—the candy section at the cash register is hard to pass by after you've made all those decisions up and down the aisles at the supermarket.
There's also a physical component, he says. Your brain feeds off of glucose, the sugar your body creates from a number of foods, and Baumeister's research has found that people whose blood glucose levels have dropped also have a harder time concentrating and making decisions, and they're more irritable and emotional. "When you’re exerting a lot of self-control, you’re using a lot of glucose," he says.
So people on diets, for instance, get slammed from all sides. For one, there's the constant bombardment of marketing messages from junk-food companies, and Baumeister has shown that we're only able to resist about 50 percent of the temptations we face. Two, these people likely make a lot of decisions at work or at home, which depletes their ability to resist temptations at mealtimes. And three, they're cutting back on calories, which deprives their brains of glucose—which they need to boost their willpower.
But don't despair, says Baumeister. "Willpower is like a muscle. It gets stronger with regular exercise," he says. His coauthor John Tierney adds that even if you can't exercise your willpower, there are ways to keep from overusing it:
#1: Start small. "Don’t try to make six New Year's resolutions all at once, or try to manage your weight during stressful times in your life," says Tierney. You don't have enough willpower to tackle more than one long-term goal at a time. Start with one, preferably the smaller, more easily accomplished task.
#2: Feed your brain with real food. If your work or home life is decision-heavy, try eating several small meals throughout the day to maintain blood glucose levels so your brain has enough fuel to both make decisions and provide you with willpower—such as the strength to avoid checking your Facebook page every time you get bored. Just be mindful of what you're eating. "I travel with a bag of nuts," Tierney says. They’re a good healthy source of protein that converts to glucose slowly but steadily. With sweets and simple carbs, such as white bread, you get a huge rush of glucose that immediately plummets, so you're back where you started—with no brain food. Aim for low-glycemic foods, Baumeister adds. "The stuff nutritionists recommend: protein, lean meats, vegetables, complex carbohydrates. Those are much better than junk food."
#3: If all else fails, eat dark chocolate. "If you’re in a situation where you need to make a decision and it feels tough, eat some chocolate," Tierney says. It's much better to eat healthy, slow-burning foods to provide a steady source of fuel to your brain, but during those stressful moments when you feel like too many demands are being made on your willpower stores, eat a small piece of dark chocolate (it's good for your heart, after all) to give your brain a quick energy boost.
#4: SLEEP! For the same reasons, it's important to give your brain a rest and sleep when you're tired. Rest reduces your body's demand for glucose, Baumeister and Tierney write, and it allows your body to make better use of what little bit you do have. As a result, sleep improves your self-control and could even pay off at work; one recent study found that workers who didn't get enough rest were more likely to engage in unethical behavior at work.
#5: Protect yourself from temptation. "People who have the best self-control have to exercise their willpower less often because they set up their lives to avoid crisis," says Tierney. "They don’t walk by the doughnut store on the way to the train. They go another way." By the same token, if you want to cut back on TV time, move it to another room. Want to avoid spending? Leave the credit cards at home.
#6: Be a creature of habit. One of the best ways to exercise your willpower and make it stronger is to start good habits. The authors write that something simple, like making your bed every morning, slowly builds up self-control and discipline, which can spread to other areas of your life, for instance, meeting deadlines at work or resisting that bag of M&Ms in the checkout line. Other healthy habits you can start: Do the dishes before bedtime. Floss every day. Put your clothes away at the end of the day, rather than tossing them onto the floor.
#7: Make your "to-do's" manageable. One of the biggest mistakes we all make in trying to generate more self-control is creating the inevitable "to-do" list. We add piles and piles of things that need to get done, but the tasks are so vague that we never get them accomplished, Tierney says. "If you have an unfinished task, your subconscious will keep nagging you about it," he adds. And you wind up worrying more than acting, and that puts you in a bad mood. Every "to-do" should have a "next action." For instance, if you need to write thank-you notes, your next action should be "buy note cards." If you need call someone, your next action should be to get that person's phone number. Otherwise, you'll know subliminally that you can't write the notes without cards, or call the person without her contact info, and the task will never get accomplished.
#8: Go easy on yourself. We can't all be stanchions of self-control all the time. Even Benjamin Franklin, the original self-help guru, had trouble sticking to all his goals, Tierney and Baumeister write. "When there’s a lot going on, don’t worry about it as much," Tierney says. Take a nap, grab something to eat, and then try conquering your goal later in the day.
Filed Under: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Published on: October 21, 2011