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The Science of Willpower

Posted Nov 06 2012 7:54am

Just finished a great book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney: 

“Willpower” is definitely a psychology book. If you’re not a psych major, you know howdifficult they can beto read at times. This one however is different. In all their findings they manage to relate it all to real life examples, many of which apply to health and fitness. We all know whether we are motivated or not, willpower is always what get’s us started and keeps us going.

I do recommend reading it, but in the meantime I wanted to share some of its key points.

First we have to realize that we only have a certain amount of willpower each day. All changes made in our life should happen gradually out of our normal routine. For example if you’ve found yourself to be quite unhealthy in the past years, step one could be switching to something simple, like only drinking water throughout the day instead of pop and juice. Once this becomes a habit: add going to the gym, eating more vegetables and so on. If you deplete too much willpower early in the day, such as making massive changes or hanging out at coffee shops you won’t have any left for afternoon/evening when you may need it the most.

Use your willpower wisely. Through the book they displayed many examples where they would purposely deplete peoples willpower, such as overcoming the temptations of free cookies, then having them solve problems. In almost all the cases the people who were made to resist the cookies they did poorly on the problems. Therefore in life, its best to slowly take things like cookies off your radar, so it doesn’t become a temptation or treat in the future that you feel stupid to resist. 

Dieting never works on a long term basis from a willpower perspective. As Oprah discovered your body can go on these diets a couple times with quick results, however your body will eventually start fighting back. A diet is very draining on your willpower. With the conjunction of daily life decisions, your body and mind can only take so much before you are forced to give up. On top of all that you will start to store actual “fat”. This is incase you were to go through more times of starvation or stress in the future. Control your environment by starting to implement better foods. Stay away from food traps such as connivence stores, and give in to cravings when they exist in the beginning in hopes to save willpower for future choices. Once you feel you you’ve screwed your eating patterns for the day, don’t continue to go over the deep end till the day is over. 

To use university as an example, procrastinators were found to be healthier during semesters, due to their slack attitudes, but would receive poor grades and more compound bout of sickness when test or assignments were due. This lead to more damage on the body overtime. Non-procastinators were mildly sick during the semester due to the diverted glucose from the immune system they used to keep up with work demands, but healthier overall.

Never make decisions while your energy is low, as you’ll tend to choose options with instant gratification and delayed cost. This is why you’ve been told never to grocery shop on a empty stomach. Your body will always want quick sugars. As I used in the cookie example, you need to take this stuff off your radar slowly, so when you’re faced with a difficult decision like having a cocktail with pop and vodka, or club soda and water you don’t need to waste any willpower. Pop is off your radar because you’d rather sacrifice the good flavour for lack of an energy crash.

Be careful how many monkeys you invite in your life. Monkeys represent things like calling a friend, cleaning the basement, writing an article, buying a present for someone at work, organizing your closet, and so on. We all have things running through our mind. Set some realistic deadlines such as “I’ll spend 2 hours this saturday cleaning my basement and no more” this way you don’t have to make difficult decisions such as spending 4-5 hours at it and not having time for anything else you want to do. Keep these goals small, and don’t let the monkey’s on your back bother you in the meantime.

By having self control in your life such as brushing your teeth on a regular basis, having a neat room, and cooking lunches: this transfers to self control in every other part of your life such as making important decisions without draining your will power. This could be one of the reasons why military personal are taught to be so neat and clean.

In the past most people have owed their self-control to religion or strict government enforcement. Times have changed however and we can’t necessarily rely on old methods of self control, today we have to define our own parameters. For me, I like to book vacations and set goals. This causes me to stick to healthy eating plan, good work/life balance and overall motivation to earn enough money to pay for my expenses.

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