I just finished my sushi lunch today, and was heading home for the afternoon. Aside from drumming as hard as I can on the steering wheel, my favorite thing to do while driving is listen to an audiobook. The audiobook of the day was The Power of Habit.
In it, the author (Charles Duhigg) was explaning various research studies. The topic: willpower.
Study Number One was the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, in which kids were given a marshmallow, and told if they didn’t eat it yet, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows later. Some ate it right away, some waited for their reward. Of the kids who waited, only one third were able to wait long enough to win the reward of an additional marshmallow.
Here’s the cool part. Sixteen years later, the kids who exhibited willpower and waited for their reward were smarter, had better self-control, harder to tempt, and less likely to be distracted. Their SAT scores were over 200 points higher. This is my dumbed down explanation. The real test is explained here.
Study Number Two was the cookie & radish experiment. Sorry, I don’t have a cool Wikipedia link for that one. Here’s the main idea: people were seated in front of radishes and cookies and told (lied to) that they were part of a taste-testing experiment. Half the group was told to eat the cookies, and the other half was told to eat radishes. The room smelled like a batch of freshly baked cookies, so just imagine the agony tha the radish-eaters had to endure. On that note, I’ll be right back, I’m getting a glass of milk and some Chips Ahoy.
After they had eaten their required food, they were given a puzzle, to “pass the time”. What they didn’t know is that the puzzle was impossible. Here’s the punchline: the radish eaters spent less than half the time working on the puzzle before giving up. Again, this is my dumbed-down version, but the moral is that self-control can be used up. It becomes weaker as it’s used throughout the day.
Bear with me. So far, we know that more willpower leads to more success. And also that it’s exhaustible.
So the question that needs to be answered is this: How can we get more willpower? Is there a pill? (If any pharmacists are reading this, I’d like to suggest you develop that pill and call it “pillpower”)
No, there’s no pill.
But the good news is that willpower operates just like a muscle. On the downside, it can be used up. But working in your favor is the fact that it can be built – like a muscle – in both strength and endurance.
And how do you build it? Just like a muscle, you can build strength by pushing beyond your limits, then resting to recover. For endurance, you just need to exercise it more often.
In willpower, that means making the extremely hard decisions to do the right thing you otherwise wouldn’t do. It’s hard to make the decision to order a salad when the triple bacon cheeseburger is on the next page of the menu. But doing so will build the strength of your willpower (which is transferable to other decisions), and make other, equally difficult choices much easier.
Make sure you aren’t constantly challenging your willpower, though. For as it is exhaustive, you will likely watch yourself go from making great choices to making terrible ones. Quite a yo-yo effect. I’m sure you’ve seen that before.
As for endurance, all you need to do is find opportunities to make small changes. I can’t overemphasize small. It probably won’t feel like your willpower is being used, and you’d be embarrassed to take credit for it. But those little exercises will make sure you can weather the long storm. And permanently be viewed by your peers as someone who exercises self-control, is well centered, and comes off as a leader.
Stick with your problems just a little longer. Try a little harder. And find yourself growing exponentially.
It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.