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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Roy F. Baumeister: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Building Self-Control  (audio, 14 min)
In this short podcast, Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and co-author (with John Tierney) of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, summarizes the often surprising results of recent research on willpower (also known as self-control or self-regulation).
  • Willpower is similar to muscle strength, in that it is a limited resource, it is renewable, and it can be strengthened.
  • Willpower is a limited resource. At any given moment in time, you have only so much of self-control, and you can deplete it (a phenomenon known as ego depletion). We have the same amount of willpower, which we use up for a variety of tasks, such as resisting the temptation to overeat, being patient and polite under stress, and even making decisions. Laboratory studies have shown that when subjects are given various self-control tests throughout the day, regardless of the order of the tasks, they tend to perform worse on the later tasks. Self-control can be measured in the lab using a variety of standard tests, for example the ability to resist cookies while hungry, or the ability to keep the hand immersed in very cold water.
  • Willpower is a renewable resource. Some of the ways to renew it is by eating or sleeping. After a meal or a good night sleep, people are better capable of self-control. Studies have shown that most diets are broken in the evening, not in the morning.
  • Willpower can be strengthened over time by exercising it. One surprising method of developing willpower is to follow arbitrary rules. In one of the studies, subjects were told to work on their posture (sit up straight, stand up straight) for two weeks. After that, their self-control improved on measures that had nothing to do with posture.
A few other interesting findings I learned from the book:

  • Never say never. Telling yourself that you will eat that dessert later (not now) is more effective in actually limiting food intake than telling yourself that you will not eat any of the desert. 
  • There are no obvious feelings of willpower depletion. You have to watch yourself for subtle signs, such as higher irritability or taking more time to make decisions. If you notice these signs, conserve what's left of your willpower. Often, willpower depletion is the result of the shortage of glucose. Eat first, wait half an hour, and then making that decision may not seem so overwhelming.
  • Pick your battles. Start exercising, or make your diet more healthy in the periods of relatively low stress, when your self-control is less depleted, rather than during a crisis.  
  • Make small changes in your habits. Do not make changes that are too hard to make into a habit.
  • Do not give a boring task more than its necessary share. Set a firm time limit, for example: clean the house for 2 hours.
  • Boost your willpower by expending a little of it on neatness. In studies, subjects exerted more self-control when seeing a clean vs. a messy desk.

The Science Of Willpower | On Point with Tom Ashbrook (audio, 46 min)

P.S. And now that I am done with the post about willpower, I am going to eat that chocolate cookie, lie down on the couch, have a drink, and watch a movie!

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