Can You Learn Willpower?

Last Updated Sep 22, 2011 10:10 AM EDT

We all admire people who seem perfectly in control of themselves. They exercise regularly; they finish projects on time. In a study of one million people, most said that self-control was their biggest weakness. So can people build up their willpower? Or are some people just born that way?

In their fascinating new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology, and John Tierney, a New York Times reporter, argue that all of us can learn to become better masters of our impulses. We just have to learn that willpower is a muscle, and like all muscles, can be exhausted through overuse, but also trained to be made stronger.

Baumeister, who directs the social psychology program at Florida State University, agreed to answer a few questions on willpower, and how to get more of it.

Q. What is the biggest misperception people have about willpower?

A. I think people fail to understand how everything is linked together. You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts for self-control. That includes not just resisting food temptations, but also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks. Even more surprisingly, it is used for decision making, so when you make choices you are (temporarily) using up some of what you need for self-control. Hard thinking, like logical reasoning, also uses it. And this energy source is tied into the body's basic energy supplies, including your immune system and the processes that regulate your heartbeat. That's why you'll score lower on a math test when your body is fighting off a cold. Willpower is part of all that.

Q. If willpower gets used up during the day, does that mean we should schedule the most important matters -- or at least the ones that require a lot of discipline -- first?
A. Yes. Most productive people do their best work early in the day. To be sure, some people are naturally "night persons" or have their best energy late in the day, and so it's necessary to work with that. Plus, some of your energy is replenished by food, so you may make better decisions after lunch than before. But in general, yes, there is a slow deterioration in willpower across the day, if you keep using it for various tasks and challenges. (If you spend the morning getting a massage or lying on the beach, you will still have plenty of willpower in the afternoon.)

There seems to be a general pattern that major self-control failures and other bad decisions occur late in the day. Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are committed after 11pm. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior, gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.

Q. So we should schedule important matters first...but after a good breakfast, right?
A. Willpower uses energy, and the body gets its energy from food. Skipping breakfast is a bad idea for anyone who wants to be physically or mentally effective. In some well-designed experiments, for example, large groups of children are told to come to school without having eaten anything, and by random assignment half are fed a good breakfast while the others get nothing. The ones who ate go on to learn more and behave better throughout the morning. Then everyone is fed a mid-morning snack, and the differences disappear.

Q. In your book you claim that daily rituals boost willpower, which is why 19th century Africa explorer Henry Stanley continued to shave daily even as he and his crew were starving, afflicted with malaria, being chased by cannibals, etc. Why do daily rituals boost will power?
A. Several things are at work here. First, maintaining such rituals as keeping up appearances provide cues to self and others that the rules still apply and standards are being maintained. This prevents an escalating breakdown. Second, small daily exercises of willpower do "build character" as the Victorians used to say. Self-control is like a muscle, and it becomes strong and stays strong only if it is exercised regularly. Third, getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the long run conserves willpower. Once things become habitual, they operate as automatic processes, which consume less willpower. If you never shave, of course, you don't expend any willpower in that domain, but most men can't really manage that. So it's a matter of shaving every day, as a habitual routine, or shaving now and then when you decide to do it. It takes willpower to establish the habit, but once it's set, it doesn't take willpower to continue. In contrast, if you have to make the decision to shave every time, this takes some willpower every time, because it means exerting control to decide when and where to do it.

Readers, have you managed to "train" your willpower muscles? What kinds of daily habits keep you from succumbing to temptation?

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Photo courtesy flickr user velvettangerine

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