I am reading a book right now called Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. My partner David thinks this is hilarious, since I am, apparently, the most willful person he has ever met.
Rather than argue with him or elaborate on the difference between willpower and willful, I accept that all sorts of slights are made towards highly disciplined people. They don't know how to have fun, they are inflexible in their thinking, they are bull-headed, and they lack spontaneity. I would like to debunk these ideas by stating that willpower, as boring a trait as we may perceive it, is in fact what can lead us to a fuller more meaningful life. A bold statement. In my world, willpower is connected to some of my life's greatest moments, its most magical insights. It is even connected with my spirituality.
Willpower is a trait that allows us to stick with things long enough to reap the deeper benefits of a particular practice, the trait that helps us access more information and a level of excellence that brings greater rewards. Willpower has a less lauded poor cousin: winning habits. These are habits we establish in our life that help us preserve our willpower for bigger tasks.
Our willpower is not infinite and it can be easily depleted by making little decisions all day long. In the book they call this "decision fatigue" and if you think for a minute, its just common sense that after deciding again and again, we get fed up. If you have ever gone shopping with somebody like my daughter Kate, who needs to canvas every store before making her final decision, you will understand this feeling; suddenly two hours in you just don't care anymore -- and I buy the $60 shoes.
According to Willpower, even judges are prone to this kind of decision fatigue. As the day wears on, they are more likely to make the easier, safer decision. Researchers at Columbia University looked for patterns in when prisoners received parole. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 65 per cent of the time. Another fascinating observation was made. Prisoners who appeared on the parole board directly after a snack break or a lunch break also had a better chance. The exact cause is unclear, but researchers suggest willpower is depleted by repeated decision making but it is replenished by food. Once we are depleted of glucose, we look for reasons to postpone decisions and look for the easiest option (in the judges' case, keep prisoners in prison). The book is worth a read and confirms what many of us may have already observed about willpower, we do not have endless resources of it, so we should conserve our willpower for when it matters. It also makes a convincing connection between willpower and food; when we don't have glucose in our bodies, our willpower becomes noticeably depleted.
This also confirms some of the ideas I have spoke about in the past, notably that it is important to focus on one big goal at a time, and not try to revamp every area of our lives all at once. If we are using a huge amount of energy to lose weight, or begin a mediation practice, it is probably not the best time to take on a huge new challenge at work.
I try to preserve my willpower for the really big things, like writing a new book, or creating a completely new presentation. When it comes to daily activities that I want to accomplish, I don't leave these up to willpower, I rely on winning habits. I create an environment that makes it near impossible not to succeed. I work out at a specified time three days out of seven. I drive my daughter to the bus stop at 7:00 a.m. and then go straight to the gym. I wake up at the same time every morning, because if I get up at that time everyday I don't have to spend 20 minutes battling with myself and depleting my willpower before I get up anyway. I create a set time for yoga and for meditation, and although my practice may only be 10 minutes, it happens everyday. I get dressed in work clothes everyday that I am working, even though I may only be working from home. These are small habits, but because they are habits, they don't require an internal battle each and every time I go to do them. I have little rules that I follow quite easily, I don't drink during the week, I eat cake on Friday and weekends, I drink one coffee a day. These are tiny things, but because they are habits I don't have to resist anything, I just follow the program. I make room for parties and special occasions, but I always do a little balancing out of these pleasures with a little extra hard work.
I see how powerful willpower is in my children's lives. My daughter was born with it and when she is focused on something she will give up any temporary pleasure to achieve the thing she is focused on. Kate has many talents, but reading was a Herculean struggle for her. Her willpower has pushed her to read almost at grade level, despite her significant challenges in the area. I can't help but consider this early challenge a gift as it has strengthened her will enormously. For my son, willpower has been a bit more of a struggle, but I now see how giving him weekly chores, and making him earn his rewards, has strengthened his willpower. He has had to wait for things that he wants, something that is directly connected to willpower; you can have that, but you can only have it later, once you have earned it. Almost 15, he has become much more disciplined in his approach to school and sport as he begins to see the connection between willpower and extraordinary experiences. Recently, his first six months of extra practices in rowing were rewarded by a trip to the San Diego Crew Classic. When he came back he seemed to stand a little taller and show more pride in his high school and his teammates.
Willpower is something we can build in ourselves and encourage in our children. It is something that helps us access the truly extraordinary experiences in life. Understanding the connection between glucose and willpower is an important realization. If we don't eat, we don't think well and often, we don't behave well. We are more likely to fly off the handle with our teenagers after skipping lunch and coming home from a day of making difficult decisions at work. Stopping for a healthy shake before we walk in the door might be just the remedy we need for a better relationship with our children. Since reading this book I have been experimenting with food and my own willpower. When I have a protein shake before walking in the door, I am much more disciplined with my emotions and patient of the trials and tribulations of our four children (all teenagers!), the Saint Bernard, and all the other wonderful creatures that inhabit our home (that is another story)!