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The Importance of Willpower

April 11, 2008


To be successful in business, it helps to have some understanding of what motivates people — be they employees or customers. Best selling books like Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point make their authors a lot of money by trying to explain behaviors that can be exploited by businesses. The whole idea behind advertising is to get people to buy things they might not actually need — in other words, advertisers try to break down people’s willpower. A new study supports what many people have long concluded, that people with strong will power are generally more successful. The good news, according to the study, is that willpower can increase with practice [“Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind,” by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, New York Times, 2 April 2008].

“Declining house prices, rising job layoffs, skyrocketing oil costs and a major credit crunch have brought consumer confidence to its lowest point in five years. With a relatively long recession looking increasingly likely, many American families may be planning to tighten their belts. Interestingly, restraining our consumer spending, in the short term, may cause us to actually loosen the belts around our waists. What’s the connection? The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others. The good news, however, is that practice increases willpower capacity, so that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals — like losing those 10 pounds we gained when we weren’t out shopping.”

Aamodt and Wang assert that personal willpower (the ability to overcome the tension created between desire and common sense) is a zero sum game — use it and you lose it. That is, people who demonstrate willpower in one area have less of it to use in another.

“The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task. In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every ‘e’ on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall. Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.”

As an employer, I’m concerned about the health of my employees because I want them to be as productive as possible. There is, of course, a fine line between generating enough stress to keep people motivated but not so much stress that task persistence is reduced. One of the interesting things revealed by the study is that what you eat can affect how you perform.

“What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.”

There is a bit of discontinuity in the arguments being used. Consider the case of someone trying to lose weight. That takes a lot of willpower. If at lunch, that person uses a great deal of restraint in what they eat (thus lowering blood sugar levels according to the article) and then returns to a job requiring high task persistence, the remedy, according to the study, is to drink a sugar-filled beverage or eat a power bar — thus countering the self-restraint on calories the peson demonstrated during lunch. The required remedy may not entirely wipe out the restraint shown at lunch, but it nevertheless puts the dieter in a quandary. The answer, it seems, is to increase one’s capacity of willpower so that one doesn’t have to artificially try to boost it. How do you do that?

“In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy. On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success. Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another. In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

How often have you heard people say they would quit smoking but are afraid they would gain weight. These studies demonstrate why that happens. It takes enormous willpower to quit smoking, which means that willpower in resisting food or drink is probably lowered. The lesson that should be learned by those who want to quit a bad habit is that they should put themselves on a willpower capacity building program before they try to kick the habit. Aamodt and Wang conclude:

“No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity. Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.”

Increased willpower — mastery of self — can also bring personal peace as well as success in life. Thomas S. Monson said:

“The battle for self-mastery may leave a person a bit bruised and battered, but always a better man or woman. Self-mastery is a rigorous process at best; too many of us want it to be effortless and painless. Some spurn effort and substitute an alibi. We hear the plea, ‘I was denied the advantages others had in their youth.’ And then we remember the caption that Webster, the cartoonist, placed under a sketch of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin: ‘Ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed.’ Others say, ‘I am physically limited.’ History is replete with people possessing physical limitations. Homer could have sat at the gates of Athens, being pitied and fed by coins from the rich. He, like Milton, the poet, and Prescott, the historian, had good alibis—they were blind. Demosthenes, greatest of all great orators, had a wonderful alibi—his lungs were weak, his voice hoarse and unmusical, and he stuttered. Beethoven was stone deaf at middle age. They all had good alibis—but they never used them. Today’s world moves at an increasingly rapid pace. Scientific achievements are fantastic, advances in medicine are phenomenal, and the probings of the inner secrets of earth and the outer limits of space leave one amazed and in awe. In our science-oriented age, we conquer space but cannot control self; hence, we forfeit peace.”

For anyone looking for personal success and inner peace, practicing self-control is one of the best strategies to pursue. We might not know why we can build our capacity to exercise willpower, but it’s nice to know that we can.

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