Willpower: The Key to Keeping Those Resolutions?

Psychology has just really found two traits that predict success across a broad range of occupations, and activities. One is intelligence, and the other is self-control. The key difference to me is that it’s very difficult to improve intelligence. Co-author of Willpower Roy F. Baumeister, as told to Eric Barker (www.bakadesuvo.com)

Whereas, in other words, it’s more likely that one can improve willpower.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney review the studies on this topic. As the publisher states: “Drawing on cutting-edge research and the wisdom of real-life experts, Willpower shares lessons on how to focus our strength, resist temptation, and redirect our lives. It shows readers how to be realistic when setting goals, monitor their progress, and how to keep faith when they falter.”

Some people claim they have no willpower, others have it in spades—it’s never infinite, however, say Baumeister and Tierney. Using dieting as an example, deprive yourself for too long and you’ll pay for it later—you’re likely to rebel. Also, because willpower is like energy, the effort you put into dieting will limit the effort you can apply to other things.

One of these things? Decision-making. “…(A)fter making a lot of decisions, your self control is lower and conversely, after exerting self control, your capacity for making decisions is lower. As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually deplete the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option,” Baumeister tells Maia Szalavitz, Time.

Avoid making heavy decisions on Fridays if that’s the end of your work week, he advises.

How has President Obama utilized this “decision fatigue” research? Apparently at some point he chose to limit his apparel choices to just two colors, theoretically freeing up energy for more important things.

In addition, make a decision under the wrong circumstances and it could turn out overly simplistic and/or faulty in other ways. About depleted decision-makers, Baumeister states in an interview with Eric Barker (www.bakadesuvo.com): “They pick things that are more indulgent. They don’t compromise. A compromise is a mentally complex decision…Also, there are some kinds of irrational bias that creep into the decision process more if people are depleted.”

On the positive side, the more you exercise willpower, as you would a muscle, the stronger your ability to control yourself becomes.

Ways to boost one’s ability to exert self-control in the short-term include the following, says Baumeister:

  • Thinking about somebody else who has good self-control, who sets a good example.
  • Taking responsibility. We found if we randomly assigned people to be the boss that they don’t show that depletion effect as fast. It’s postponed.
  • Believing that you have lots of willpower seems to help.
  • Motivation. If something’s important, suddenly people can perform well again even though they’re depleted.

Both eating healthily and getting proper rest also help boost willpower and recharge it. And, in the long run, physical exercise helps too.

How can this research play into the development of your New Year’s resolutions? Baumeister suggests the following:

Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one. If swearing is the easiest, then do that one first because that will strengthen your willpower and increase your capacity when you move onto the harder ones. If you make this resolution and you actually keep it, your body gets used to exerting self-control and it becomes stronger and more ready to take on another challenge.

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