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Written by B and photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash
“This day started to good!” You exclaim this in frustration after you finally managed to get up early, eat healthy, worked productively and focused, like you had planned it. You even managed to be politer to people that annoyed you over the day, but once you get home you get in a fight with your partner over some small issue, over eat and cannot resist the ice cream bucket or the chips bag for desert. You are frustrated and you wonder why you did not manage to keep up with the good record. If this sentiment feels relatable for you will now understand the hidden mechanics that drive your behavior and get some tips on how to work better with it.
The phenomenon you seek to understand is at the same time one of the best predictors for success: self-control and willpower. If you now are already frustrated that self-control or discipline was never “your thing”, you should keep reading. You are definitely not doomed to being unsuccessful. Unlike a characteristic like intelligence, which is more or less given, you can acquire willpower. Willpower works like a muscle. The more and better you train yourself, the better you become at exercising self-control. Keep in mind a few important aspects and use this knowledge to excel in life.
After you finished your workout, you are asked to do it again. How good will your performance be? It is very likely that your performance will be mediocre to miserable. Your muscles and you are tired. A similar process happens when you use a lot of willpower. It gets harder over the time to stay strong and stick to your decision not to give in. That is why you cannot resist the ice cream bucket in the end of an ehausting day. A day during which you exercised a lot of difficult tasks which needed you to control yourself. Your “willpower-reservoirs” are empty. This process is called “ego-depletion”. Being aware that your self-control is a scare resource is important. Plan accordingly! Do you have a bunch of new years resolutions, which you want to stick with? Make sure to focus on one aspect at a time. Do not chose to eat healthy, quit smoking and start working out all at once. All of this requires willpower. Rather give each resolution a time frame and once you have acquainted yourself with this one new habit you can take on the next one. This goes not only for life changing resolutions, but also when you plan your days. Do not put all difficult meetings in one day to get them over with. You will end up with seriously less performance in the end and might regret some of your decisions.
“Wow, I wonder how she can do that!” There seem to be some people who manage incredible things. Things that for us seem impossible. That require a lot of mental strength and discipline. But their abilities are not just nature given. Most of these people trained very hard and expanded their limits of self-control over time. Which is what you can do, too.
We have grown into a society that does not force you to use a lot of self-control or discipline. Basically, anything goes (as long as you don’t break laws or hurt somebody). Additionally, the temptations are omnipresent. Marketing tells us that we should have what we want, whenever we want it. Therefore, very often we give in. We lack a lot of the small will-power exercises in our daily practice. “You will grow, once you leave your comfort zone” said David Blaine, the magician and holder of several world records, e.g. for holding his breath for 17 minutes. Do things that you do not feel good or you do not want to do (nothing dangerous for sure!), like taking a cold shower in the morning, grab stuff with your left instead of right hand (if you are right handed), hold your breath, or remeber to sit up straight (like your grandma told you). Even these little exercises will help you to improve your endurance.
The next important step is that you consciously plan activities and times to recharge. Interestingly, self-control has been empirically proven to be related to our sugar intake. The Snicker’s advertisement was not completely false when they stated “You are not you when you are hungry”. The proper truth is: When your body lacks glucose, you are more you than you might like. At least you are a version of yourself you seldom see and maybe even want to see. Once your glucose level drops you feel emotions stronger and are less able to control yourself. No wonder that "feeling hangry”, which means being angry and peevish and more irritable because you are hungry, has even made it to our colloqial vocabulary.
In situations were blood sugar is too low, we feel a special craving for sweets. That is why chocolate consumption during exam time rises exponentially. To bring up the discipline to sit down and study over long periods we help ourselves with external sugar intake. Although, you might crave sweets, white bread or white rice you should resist. These foods have a high glycemic index. This means that they will push your blood sugar levels up immediately, however, after the steep increase the blood sugar level will fall and you will feel even worse. In general, our body can transform all nutritions into the necessary sugar. When you opt for the foods that will keep your blood sugar level steadier you will feel energetic and well-tempered at the same time. Make additionally time for a nap at noon or some other activities that do not require you a lot of willpower in between times when your resources are especially in demand.
There are always to sides you can focus on either the income or the expenses. A suitable strategy to save some willpower is to shorten your expenses. I listed a few strategies that can help you not to spend so much willpower during the day. Once you change your environment a little bit, it will be a lot easier to get through difficult times.
You took your girlfriend on a date. While you order a nice burger with fries, she just wants a salad. Although, you know she loves fries, she assures you that she will be fine with just the salad. I bet all of you know how this story ends….
She is most likely “not fine” just with her salad and will ask you to share your fries. This is a very classic pattern. Your girlfriend made an attempt to avoid temptation, when making her order. But once she is confronted with the fries on the table in front of her, her self-control is not strong enough to resist a second time. Especially, in a situation where she smells the amazing scent of fresh and hot fries (well, now I crave fries...). Whenever you want to avoid something remove all possible temptations. When you are not confronted with a choice you can not opt for the “wrong” one. You do not need to mobilize any of your scare willpower resources.
In my childhood, there was an advertisement with the following storyline: A boss was shouting at his employee because the employee had done something wrong. The boss pointed at the sign on the wall and read the text loudly and emphasized on every syllable. It said that it was prohibited to do exactly what the employee had done. Then another employee came up to tell their boss that his colleague was not able to read properly. The boss immediately changed his attitude. It was an advertisement to improve literacy.
The knowledge about the employees difficult circumstances changed the attitude of his boss, from being extremely angry to being very supportive and understanding. The urge to shout out in rage had vanished. But imagine the boss was forced to control this rage? This would have consumed a lot of willpower. However, we often need to control our rage. When we talk to a boss or a professor or in a group work scenario. But the next time you feel angry about somebodies behavior try to put yourself in their shoes. If you struggle with that at first, start asking people about their background and get to know them. Once you start to develop empathy the urge to rage will vanish significantly (similar to the bosses attitude in the advertisement) and it will not consume so much of your resources.
This also works with other cravings: When you tell yourself you always feel very bad when you have eaten a lot of sweets and it makes your skin uneven and makes you feel worse, once the blood sugar level drops; The cravings will be reduced and you do not need so much self-control to resist.
There is a special department in our brains that stores all our habits. Once a behavior has found the way to this section, you do not need to think about it anymore. Behaving this way is not an option or decision anymore, that is why it wont consume any of your willpower sources!
Personally, I do not like the “muscle-metaphor” for willpower much. It visualizes the aspect that you can train your willpower, however, to my mind it gives a wrong impression about the feedback we get when we use our willpower. When you train at the gym you feel your muscles and when they are tired you won’t be able to lift the weights one more time. You have muscle ache or your muscles feel sore after the training. This is a very nice feedback-response-system of our body, telling you exactly when you should not use your muscles anymore. When we exercise self-control, we do not get any feedback (or any feedback we understand as a sign of empty willpower banks). We have no battery sign in the top of our eye sight telling us how many percent of our willpower are left. It does not get red once we reach a critical level. Sadly not. We scream at our partner, overreact and do things we do not want to do. That is how we recognize that we reached zero or below. We do not even know that our behavior is related to a lack of willpower. We call it a “bad day” and go to bed. That is a very crappy response-system!
So, I’d rather suggest that you see willpower consumption more like money. We do not physically feel money leaving our bank account that is why we make notes. I suggest that you make mental notes whenever you feel or know that your willpower bank has been tapped. Understand what consumes up your resources and what it does to you. Increase your awareness for the little signs your body might give you (but we often over hear) and always make a mental note. On a day when you have experienced many willpower-consuming moments do not expect yourself to follow your strict diet or show a lot of patience. Allow yourself to relax and recover from a stressful day!
Some suggestions for further reading
Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. Penguin.
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self‐Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 115-128.
Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality and social psychology review, 11(4), 303-327.
Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. Random House.
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 943-947.
Published on Wednesday 5th August 2020
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