Jan 05

“The Willpower Instinct”: Kelly McGonigal’s Views On How to Harness It

The development of willpower–I will, I won’t and I want–may define what it means to be human. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct

What could be more needed and/or relevant in early January than Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011)?

And who could be more qualified to write such a book than the woman whose course at Stanford on “The Science of Willpower” regularly draws so much interest?

What is willpower? In an interview with Kate Torgovnick May (TED blog) McGonigal states:

I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to…There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

As compiled from various sources, below are some of her main points in The Willpower Instinct:

  • The three skills of self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are what can fend off the three biggest challenges to willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress.
  • “If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.” Conversely, not paying attention is conducive to losing impulse control.
  • Want to increase your willpower? Exercise it like a muscle.
  • Your willpower will be at its peak when you wake up and decline throughout the day.
  • Sleeping enough and eating healthily helps.
  • Giving yourself small rewards also helps.
  • Guilt over setbacks does not—it often contributes to giving up, at least for a while.
  • Alarming people about the negative nature of their habits is often not beneficial.

An example of how the latter point might play out, per McGonigal:

A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words ‘WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer’ and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, ‘Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!’

What should you do when your own willpower flags? In a Psychology Today post McGonigal asserts that the following five “temptations” can actually be of use:

1. Reality Television—watch the kind that features people going after a goal. ‘Research shows that willpower can be contagious.’

2. A Snack. ‘One reason willpower runs out is because it’s energy-expensive. The brain uses more energy for self-control than for just about anything else. So if you’re running low on physical energy, you’ll be low in willpower energy.’

3. The Cute YouTube Video. ‘Research show that watching a humorous video restores depleted willpower and helps people get back on track with difficult tasks.’

4. An Afternoon Nap. Because sleep recharges your brain.

5. A Single Espresso. ‘Caffeine gets a bad rap, blamed for energy crashes and overcaffeinated jitters. But in its simplest form—straight up coffee or tea—and reasonable doses (depending on your own caffeine tolerance), caffeine can actually reduce stress.’

Oct 08

“The Marshmallow Test”: What’s the Real Lesson?

 Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught. Pamela Druckerman, New York Times, about The Marshmallow Test

In advance of the publication of psychologist Walter Mischel‘s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the above journalist explained his central theme: We can overcome our childhood tendencies to go for the quick marshmallow (or alternative treat) rather than wait and get two.

In the legendary experiments that continue today but started back in the 1960’s, “(t)he children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults (and other kids) can learn this type of self-control too.

It’s all in the way our brains work, of course. In brief, the prefrontal cortex has to be called more into play.

It’s also in the making of if-then (or prior contingency) plans. How this applies to kids is explained by Mischel (Education Week):

…(W)ith practice, the desired action becomes triggered automatically when the ‘if’ cue occurs: If I have an assignment to complete, then I will turn off my text messages until I am done; if the dessert tray arrives then I will order the fruit salad; if I get angry then I will take a deep breath and count backward from 10 before I act; if I get teased at school, then I will pretend I don’t hear and walk away; if I am about to start daydreaming then I will look right at the teacher and pay attention. It’s simple but effective, and with practice can become routine.

As Stephen Colbert declared in this headline that preceded his recent interview with the author of The Marshmallow Test, “Walter Mischel says the key to success is the patience to delay gratification. Oh…I want some delayed gratification now!”

Jan 01

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.