2011 saw the publication of an exciting book on the science of willpower by one of the world’s leading experts on motivation, professor Roy F Baumeister. So, to ask a seemingly obvious question, why exactly does willpower matter? Baumeister explains that “it separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation – do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilisation.”
What interests us at MotivatingMax is that there are some sound scientific principles to back up the professor’s contentions: For example, multiple studies have shown that children who performed well on willpower tests went on to become more successful in their adult lives; happier, higher status, healthier, more likely to be in stable relationships, and less likely to commit crime than their impulsive peers. The kinds of tests used to assess willpower in children are revealing, they tell us in a nutshell what the concept is all about.
In a 2010 New-Zealand study which ran for 32 years and sampled 1,000 participants, the children were given a choice to have a single marshmallow now or two if they were able to wait. This principle applies to so many health-relevant behaviours in our lives and it touches on a general problem with people in the modern age. By and large, we are becoming focussed on immediate gratification. Our whole society is geared up for instant results- whether we are talking about speed dating or fast food. Nobody is willing to wait or defer any more.
Willpower and posture
Our focus at Motivating Max is health and fitness so let’s consider Professor Baumeister’s principle in terms of posture and mobility. If we drop something on the ground we have two choices, it’s easier and quicker to bend our lumbar spines and let the elasticity of our back and hamstring muscles break our descent.
It’s more taxing to activate our gluteal muscles and bend our knees and hips, it takes strength and control. Yet if we bend in this careful manner and carryout other incidental movements with the same thought then we radically increase our chances of still being supple and strong into later life. After all, the body is made of articulating surfaces and fibres which will eventually wear out- so our physical condition has to be a reflection of every movement we have ever made in our entire lives.
This brings to mind the words of a philosopher “how we do one thing is how we do everything”, in other words, the little stuff does actually matter because it’s part of a bigger picture.
The moral muscle
The take home message in Baumeister’s book is that willpower is like a “moral muscle” which can be trained just like the muscles we exercise in the gym! For example, making people aware of the need to control their posture actually increases willpower shown in other, unconnected behaviours. The implication is that we need to take small, manageable steps to controlling our unhealthy impulses. Maybe that’s why most people fail to meet their over-reaching new year’s resolutions!?
There is another more interesting implication that stems from this “muscle” analogy. Our willpower can actually be worn out, fatigued or over-trained! Experiments undertaken by Baumeister have proven this. For example if participants take part in tasks which force them to restrain their impulses (like the marshmallow example above) then their performance on subsequence decision-making or willpower tests drops considerably. This drop suggests that participants have in effect tired out their moral muscle!
It also explains why people tend to display less willpower when they are ill, tired, depressed, or when their blood sugar is low. There was a fascinating study recounted in the book which showed that judges sitting at Parole board hearings in Israel were far more likely to release a prisoner early immediately after lunch when their blood sugar levels were higher!
So how can we distil the professor’s advice into some meaningful nuggets that can help us in our daily lives. We have summed up the key themes for you:
- Be aware that your decision-making capabilities, especially your ability to make tough decisions that are in your best interests, are diminished considerably when you are ill, tired, or feeling down!
- If you are restricting your calorie intake bear in mind that low blood sugar actually robs you of willpower and makes it more likely you will cheat. Doesn’t seem fair does it?
- If you take on an important goal or task, try not to do too much in one go – small steps will see your goals!
- Temptation can jump up on you- and sometimes the best way to avoid it is to plan so that it never arises. Baumeister says those with moderate willpower can get out of a bad situation once they have fallen into it, whereas those with superior willpower won’t get into the situation in the first place!!
- Make a public commitment to carry out a task or fulfil a promise. This will motivate you- it’s the equivalent of “buying a ticket” for the journey. It represents a moment of no return. This calls to mind the moment someone decides to join a gym because once they’re committed to the membership they will be more likely to attend.
- If you’re going to have a treat or some kind of indulgence then make sure it’s worth it! What this means is if you’re going to cheat on your diet a bit and have a cake, make sure it’s your favourite type of cake in the world, one you absolutely love rather than simply something that has been placed in front of you that you’re eating out of politeness.
Congratulations, you’ve clearly got the willpower to finish this article! If what you have read here inspires you then check out the book itself, it’s fantastically written in a truly accessible and entertaining style- you’ll have no trouble getting through it in a week just like we did here at Motivating Max. [easyazon_link identifier=”0143122231″ locale=”US” tag=”mmxaz-20″]Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney[/easyazon_link]is published by Penguin.