WILLPOWER…

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
by
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Recently, some scholars [Tierney, here, is writing, of course, about David Eagleman and Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain. JH] have begun to argue that the legal system must be revamped to eliminate outdated notions of free will and responsibility. p. 8

[College students preparing for and during final exams] abandoned healthy diets and increased their consumption of junk food by 50 percent. It wasn’t that they suddenly convinced themselves that potato chips were a brain food. They simply stopped worrying about unhealthy fattening food when they were focused on exams. they also became less concerned about returning phone calls, washing dishes or cleaning floors. Final exam time brought declines in every aspect of personal hygiene that was studied. The students became less diligent about brushing and flossing their teeth. They skipped washing their hair and shaving. And yes, they wore dirty socks and other unwashed clothes. p. 32-3

[College students preparing for and during final exams] were also more grumpy, irritable and prone to anger or despair. They may have blamed their outbursts on the stress of exam period, because there’s a common misperception that stress causes those kinds of emotions. What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions. p. 33

The experiments consistently demonstrated two lesson: first, you have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it; and second, you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. p. 35

We can divide the uses of willpower into four broad categories: (a) control of thoughts, ability to focus; (b) control of emotions, called by psychologists affect regulation or ability to control mood; (c) control of impulses, the ability to resist temptation; and (d) control of performance, directing energy to the task at hand. p. 36-7

In one remarkable study, researchers in Finland went into a prison to measure the glucose tolerance of convicts who were about to be released. Then the scientists kept track of which ones went on to commit new crimes. Obviously there are many factors that can influence whether an ex-con goes straight: peer pressure, marriage, employment prospects, drug use. Yet just by looking at the response to the glucose test, the researchers were able to predict with greater than 80 percent accuracy which convicts would go on to commit violent crimes. These men apparently had less self-control because of their impaired glucose tolerance, a condition in which the body has trouble converting food into usable energy. p. 45-6.

As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat – which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands for self-control in their lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It’s not a simple matter of wanted all food more – they seem to be specifically hungry for sweets. In the lab, students who have just performed a self-control task eat more sweet snacks but not other (salty) snacks. [This is true for me and Snickers bars, doughnut holes and Jolly Ranchers. JH] p. 51

When you eat, go for the slow burn. The body converts just about all sorts of foods into glucose, but at different rates. Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index. These include starchy carbohydrates like white bread, potatoes, white rice and plenty of offerings on snack racks and fast-food counters. Eating them produces boom-and-bust cycles, leaving you sort on glucose and self-control–and too often unable to resist the body’s craving for quick hits of starch and sugar from doughnuts and candy. Those all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts on Fat Tuesday my make for wilder parties, but they’re not all that useful for the rest of the year.

To maintain steady self control, you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews) many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries and pears) cheese, fish, meat, olive oil and other good fats. [Emphasis mine, JH.] (These low-glycemic foods may also help you keep slim.) p. 58-9

The group with proximal [short-term] goals outperformed everyone else when the program was over and competence was tested. They succeeded, apparently, because meeting these daily goals gradually built their confidence and self-efficacy. With their focus on a specific goal for each session, they learned better and faster than the others. Even though they spent less time per session, they got more done, thus progressing through all the material faster. At the end, when faced with hard problems, they persevered longer and were less likely to give up. It turned out that the distal [long-term] goals were no better than having no goals at all. Only the proximal goals produced improvement in learning, self-efficacy and performance. p. 70

“On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” Benjamin Franklin. p. 71

[A general officer at the Pentagon’s] summary of her approach [to managing her affairs] was as follows: “first, I make a list of priorities: one, two, three and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.” p. 74

So, it turns out that the Zeigarnik effect [uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind, first described by and named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik] is not, as we assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task is done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. [Emphasis in the original. JH] The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders. p. 83-84

[David, Getting Things Done,] Allen has come to appreciate why decide has the same etymological root as homicide: the Latin word caedere, meaning to cut down or to kill. “When we’re trying to decide what to do with our stuff or what movie to see,” Allen says, “we don’t think to ourselves, Look at all these cool choices. There’s a powerful thing inside that says, If I decide to do that movie, I’ll kill all the other movies. You can pretend all the way up to that point that you know the right thing to do, but once you’re faced with a choice, you have to deal with this open loop in your head: You’re wrong, you’re right, you’re wrong, you’re right. Every single time you make a choice, you’re stepping into an existential void.” p. 86

What good is self-awareness for [improving survival and reproduction]? The best answer came from the psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, who arrived at a vital insight: self-awareness evolved because it helps self-regulation. They had conducted their own experiments observing people sitting at a desk where there happened to be a mirror. The mirror seemed a minor accessory – not even important enough to mention to the people – yet it caused profound difference in all kinds of behavior. If people could see themselves in the mirror, they were more likely to follow their own inner values instead of following someone else’s orders. When instructed to deliver shocks to another person, the mirror made people more restrained and less aggressive than a control group that wasn’t facing a mirror. A mirror prompted them to keep working harder at a task. [Hmm, should I put a mirror in front of my desk? JH] When someone tried to bully them into changing their opinion about something, they were more likely to resist bullying and stick to their opinion. p. 112-3

But orderly habits like [shaving daily in the jungle] can actually improve self-control in the long run by triggering automatic mental processes that don’t require much energy. [19th century African explorer Henry] Stanley’s belief in the link between external order and inner self-discipline has been confirmed recently in some remarkable studies. In one experiment, a group of participants answered questions sitting in a nice neat laboratory room, while others sat in the kind of place that inspires parents to shout, “clean up your room!” The people in the messy room scored lower in self-control on many measures, such as being unwilling to wait a week for a larger sum of money as opposed to taking a smaller sum right away. When offered snacks and drinks, people in the neat lab room chose apples and milk instead of the candy and sugary colas preferred by their peers in the pigsty. p. 156

The clear implication [of the difference between page-a-day writers and binge writers] was that the best advice for young writers and aspiring professors is: write every day. Use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run. p. 159

The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason why religious people score relatively high in measures of self-control and why non-religious people like Stanley can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals. Stanley always combined his ambitions for personal glory with a desire to be “good” as he’d imagined his dying mother telling him. p. 165

The Catch-22 of dieting: In order to not to eat, a dieter needs willpower and in order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat. p. 226.

Instead of making general plans to reduce calories, you make highly specific plans for automatic behavior [implementation intentions] in certain circumstances, like what to do when you’re tempted by fattening food at a party. An implementation intention take the form of if-then: if x happens, then I will do y. The more you use this technique to transfer control of your behavior to automatic processes, the less effort you will expend. p 229

[For instance, I might make implementation intentions such as: if I am watching any video, then I will not eat; if there is a buffet at a party, then I will not eat in the room where the buffet is; if there are bowls of food at a party, then I will sit as far away from the bowls as possible. JH]

The people who weighed themselves every day were much more successful at keeping their weight from creeping back up. They were less likely to go on eating binges, and they didn’t show any signs of disillusion or distress from their daily confrontation with the scale. For all the peculiar challenges to losing weight, one of the usual strategies is still effective: the more carefully and frequently you monitor yourself, the better you’ll control yourself. p. 231

…[T]hose who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who used other techniques. It also helps to record how many calories are in the food, although that’s notoriously tricky to estimate. p. 232

So, when it comes to food, never say never. When the dessert cart arrives don’t gaze longingly at forbidden treats. Vow that you will eat all of them sooner or later, but not tonight. In the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara, tell yourself: Tomorrow is another taste. p. 237

[Raymond] Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories: “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically every morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines or write checks.”

This Nothing Alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task. Although your work may not be as solitary and clearly defined as Chandler’s, you can still benefit from setting aside time to do one and only one thing. Just follow Chandler’s regimen:

“Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

The rest comes of itself. That’s the seeming effortlessness that comes from playing offense. Chandler was incorporating several of the techniques we discussed earlier. The Nothing Alternative is a bright-line rule: a clear, unmistakable boundary, like the no-drinking vow… Chandler’s particular rule – If I can’t write, I will do nothing – is also an example of an implementation plan, that specific if-x-then-y strategy that has been shown to reduce the demands on will power. p. 254-5

25 Responses to “WILLPOWER…”

  1. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney […]

  2. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney […]

  3. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney […]

  4. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  5. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  6. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  7. […] food without gorging (my choice of word, not his) myself and, in line with the suggestion from Willpower regarding giving myself permission to eat something at a future, unspecified time, I said that I […]

  8. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  9. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  10. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  11. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  12. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  13. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  14. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  15. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  16. […] Yes, there actually is real research for this (see note for pages 32-33)… […]

  17. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  18. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  19. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  20. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  21. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  22. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  23. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  24. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

  25. […] Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John […]

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