John Tierney (New York Times columnist) has teamed up with Roy Baumeister, Ph.D. (social psychologist) to write a book about willpower, decision making, and self-control entitled “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”
He summarized some of the book’s major points in a recent column. I can’t wait to read the entire book. We have commented in previous blogs about the fact that the highly related issues of self-control, the ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration, and what’s often called “willpower” constitute a set of the most critical skills people need to acquire. Kids who gain such control become more successful adults; they achieve more; they earn more, and they report greater happiness and satisfaction with life.
Interestingly, willpower is not a fixed trait although many people think of it as such. Willpower fluctuates substantially throughout each day and in many ways can be thought of as analogous to muscles. You can build muscles up with practice or you can fatigue them by overworking them.
It can cost you a lot if you don’t understand that your store of self-control can be easily depleted as the day progresses. For example, the ability to make good decisions requires a great deal of self-control and people tend to make much better decisions in the morning than in the later part of the day. Here are a few of the types of things that can deplete your mental energy reserves that are so necessary for making good decision:
- Attempting to suppress emotions (such as while watching an emotional movie)
- Making lots of decisions even if none of them are particularly important
- Physical fatigue
- Having more rather than fewer choices
All of these types of events appear to lead to a depletion in blood glucose levels which may be part of the problem. It appears that people’s ability to control their impulses and make good decisions is impaired greatly when glucose levels swing too low. Therefore, consuming a quick jolt of sugar can actually improve self-control for a little while.
Sort of ironic isn’t it? If you’re low on self-control, you can bolster your mental energy reserves by indulging and giving into temptation. If only things were so simple. As you might imagine, this indulgence technique actually only works for a very short while and the body soon burns up pure sugar and craves more. Nonetheless, on rare occasions, if you have a truly important decision to make, and you’re a bit worn out, perhaps a quick jolt of chocolate or a soda could help you get over the hump and give you the energy to think more clearly. Just don’t resort to this tactic very often.
So if eating a quick candy bar isn’t the best solution to improving impulse control, decision making, and willpower, what is? Here’s a few recommendations (read their book for more!):
- Make important decisions when you’re well rested, usually in the morning.
- Schedule and structure your days as much as possible so you don’t have to decide what you’re doing at each moment.
- Eat fewer simple sugars and emphasize foods that supply the brain with a slower, steadier supply of glucose (such as complex carbohydrates and proteins).
- Try to limit the number of choices and decisions you have to make each day.
- Avoid having to suppress temptations by not going into fast food places and all you can eat buffets (actively suppressing temptations is good to do, but can wear you out).
Finally, you can probably improve your willpower if you practice using it systematically, much like you could improve your muscle tone. However, if you do so, be aware that after each practice session, you’re likely to remain depleted and vulnerable to temptation for a while.