A lack of willpower means it's time to exercise your mind

Self-control is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time.

(Photo: Tooga/Getty)

The first daily test of one’s willpower begins with the loathsome tone of the alarm clock: to resist pressing the snooze button. Then, on the way to work the mind fights giving reckless commuters the finger or stopping for a sugary latte. Before any real work begins, the tank of self-control that was full at the beginning of the day has already been partially depleted. Unfortunately, the human ability to self-regulate is limited. The more tired the mind becomes by resisting its impulses throughout the day, the stronger the likelihood of caving to feelings of temptation, which trigger pleasure centres in the brain.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin), co-authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Marion Tierney offer both practical tips on beating the most common daily tests of self-control, as well as scientific insight into why humans react to impulses the way they do. Our willpower is rooted in our desire to “avoid public disgrace rather than by any zeal to achieve human perfection,” the authors say. They trace the history of self-control through the past century, pausing to reflect on the strong-willed Victorians and the impulsive hippies. Tierney approaches the subject as a journalist who has worked for The New York Times for more than two decades, while Baumeister is a respected psychologist who has written and edited over 20 books.

The pair suggest thinking of willpower as a muscle that can be strengthened over time with the right exercises, but has a limited amount of energy. In other words, you may have the will to succeed, but you may also run out of power. Just like actual muscles, the brain needs to be well-fuelled to exercise optimum self-control. The body turns food into glucose, which in turn feeds our brain. As the authors say: no glucose, no willpower. Straight sugar in chocolate bar or candy form may offer a quick boost, but “low-sugar high-protein foods and other nutritious fare work just as well”—and without the risk of a sugar crash. Skipping meals—especially on days where you are stressed or have to make big decisions—is a recipe for disaster. So is arguing with people at times of weakness or hunger, like right before lunch or dinner.

But Willpower isn’t all neuroscience and biology, and the book offers an explanation for one of the most perplexing issues in leadership: Why are smart, high-profile leaders like Bill Clinton and former-HP CEO Mark Hurd unable to resist career-pulverizing sexual relationships? Baumeister and Tierney say this phenomenon is a result of “decision fatigue,” which is an “occupational hazard that comes with being, as George W. Bush once described himself, ‘the decider.’” Every decision leaders make depletes their willpower, leaving them vulnerable to temptation and heightening their desires.

Similarly, in a study of judges deciding whether to award prisoners parole, the criminals who appeared before the bench in the morning had their parole approved about 70% of the time, while those unlucky enough to be seen late in the day were awarded parole less than 10% of the time. With depleted glucose levels and exhausted from making choices all day, deciders will look for the “easiest and safest options, which is often to stick to the status quo: leave the prisoner in prison.”

So if mastering one’s willpower isn’t just a matter of having an overwhelming desire to succeed, what can be done about it? Baumeister and Tierney suggest exerting willpower over one thing at a time. A person who is trying to quit smoking should not also begin a diet and an exercise regimen. Making a daily list of tasks to complete—and the next steps toward completion—allows the subconscious to view incomplete work as processed and under control.

And while we tend to imagine willpower as a solitary pursuit of mastering our own minds, the authors suggest people are more likely to keep resolutions made in the presence of others—especially romantic partners. “Apparently, promising your therapist that you will cut down on drinking is not a powerful boost of self-control, but promising your spouse makes a big difference,” they report. “Your spouse, after all, is the one who’s going to smell your breath.”

In a frustrating twist, Baumeister’s research shows that the people with the best willpower actually spend the least amount of time resisting temptations. They don’t have to wrestle with procrastination on an assignment while fighting the urge to eat chips, because they planned their assignment efficiently in the first place, and never brought the junk food into their house. “They use their self-control not to get though crises, but to avoid them,” the authors write. “They play offence instead of defence.”

The plan that helps them avoid procrastination at work is a huge asset, since that problem has become synonymous with failed willpower for many people. Research shows 20% of people surveyed internationally now consider procrastination to be a defining personal characteristic. In the age of interminable distraction, employees might adopt detective author Raymond Chandler’s strategy for getting things done called “the Nothing Alternative.” Once you’ve decided on a task to complete at work, either do that task or do nothing. No e-mail, no Internet, coffee runs, reading or getting sidetracked by other tasks.

Unfortunately, there’s no monitor for depleted willpower, but laziness, becoming easily frustrated, or feeling sudden impulses for short-term gains are good indicators that you’re low on gas. Conversely, it’s best to make changes to diet, exercise or your career when you feel most calm and relaxed.

And don’t forget to reinforce good behaviour by allowing the occasional nibble of a dangling carrot. “We’ve criticized the everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy of the self-esteem movement, but trophies for genuine accomplishment are fine,” the authors say. “When you set a goal, set a reward for reaching it—and then don’t stiff yourself.”