A fascinating look at willpower: what it is, how it is “powered” and how we can improve it.  What would a 10% improvement in your willpower do for you?  How many more things could you accomplish, things you know you have to do to improve yourself and your business?

Can You Learn Willpower?
By Laura Vanderkam | BNET | September
22, 2011
We all admire people who seem perfectly in
control of themselves. They exercise regularly; they finish projects on time.
 a study of one million people,
most said that self-control was their biggest weakness. So can people build up
their willpower? Or are some people just born that way?
In their fascinating new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F.
a professor of psychology, and John Tierney, a New
York Times reporter, argue that all of us can learn to become better masters of
our impulses. We just have to learn that willpower is a muscle, and like all
muscles, can be exhausted through overuse, but also trained to be made
Baumeister, who directs the social psychology
program at
 Florida State
, agreed to answer a few questions on
willpower, and how to get more of it.

Q. What is the biggest
misperception people have about willpower
A. I think people fail to understand how everything
is linked together. You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of
acts for self-control. That includes not just resisting food temptations, but
also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms
of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks. Even
more surprisingly, it is used for decision making, so when you make choices you
are (temporarily) using up some of what you need for self-control. Hard
thinking, like logical reasoning, also uses it. And this energy source is tied
into the body’s basic energy supplies, including your immune system and the
processes that regulate your heartbeat. That’s why you’ll score lower on a math
test when your body is fighting off a cold. Willpower is part of all that.
Q. If willpower gets used
up during the day, does that mean we should schedule the most important matters — or
at least the ones that require a lot of discipline — first?
A. Yes. Most productive people do their best work early in the
day. To be sure, some people are naturally “night persons” or have their best
energy late in the day, and so it’s necessary to work with that. Plus, some of
your energy is replenished by food, so you may make better decisions after
lunch than before. But in general, yes, there is a slow deterioration in
willpower across the day, if you keep using it for various tasks and
challenges. (If you spend the morning getting a massage or lying on the beach,
you will still have plenty of willpower in the afternoon.)
There seems to be a general pattern that major
self-control failures and other bad decisions occur late in the day. Diets are
broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are
committed after 11pm. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior,
gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.
Q. So we should schedule
important matters first…but after a good breakfast, right?
A. Willpower uses energy, and the body gets its
energy from food. Skipping breakfast is a bad idea for anyone who wants to be
physically or mentally effective. In some well-designed experiments, for
example, large groups of children are told to come to school without having eaten
anything, and by random assignment half are fed a good breakfast while the
others get nothing. The ones who ate go on to learn more and behave better
throughout the morning. Then everyone is fed a mid-morning snack, and the
differences disappear.
Q. In your book you claim
that daily rituals boost willpower, which is why 19th century Africa explorer Henry Stanleycontinued to shave daily even as
he and his crew were starving, afflicted with malaria, being chased by
cannibals, etc. Why do daily rituals boost will power?
A. Several things are at work here. First, maintaining such
rituals as keeping up appearances provide cues to self and others that the
rules still apply and standards are being maintained. This prevents an
escalating breakdown. Second, small daily exercises of willpower do “build
character” as the Victorians used to say. Self-control is like a muscle, and it
becomes strong and stays strong only if it is exercised regularly. Third,
getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the
long run conserves willpower. Once things become habitual, they operate as
automatic processes, which consume less willpower. If you never shave, of
course, you don’t expend any willpower in that domain, but most men can’t
really manage that. So it’s a matter of shaving every day, as a habitual
routine, or shaving now and then when you decide to do it. It takes willpower
to establish the habit, but once it’s set, it doesn’t take willpower to
continue. In contrast, if you have to make the decision to shave every time,
this takes some willpower every time, because it means exerting control to
decide when and where to do it.

Readers, have you managed to “train” your
willpower muscles? What kinds of daily habits keep you from succumbing to

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