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The quest for self-control

Jan 22 2012 10:52
*Ian Mann
Willpower - Rediscovering our greatest strength, Baumeister & Tierney

HOWEVER you define success, it tends to be accompanied by a set of qualities which most commonly identifies your intelligence and self-control.

To date researchers have failed to identify how to permanently increase intelligence, but they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control.

Victorians used the word “willpower” for self-control because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved – some unique equivalent of the steam that powered the industrial revolution. The author uses the term “willpower” for the same reason – he has scientifically identified the power behind self-control.

Most of our major problems - personal, social and business - can be ascribed to a failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger and more.

A lack of self-control can cost you the US Open, as Serena Williams’ tantrum in 2009 demonstrated; it can destroy your career, as adulterous American politicians keep discovering.

It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system and to the terrifying prospects for so many people who failed to set aside enough money for their old age.

Ask people to name their greatest personal strength and self-control comes in dead last, as shown by a study of more than 1 million people around the world. Conversely, when asked about their failings, lack of self-control was at the top of the list.

Baumeister, head of the psychology programme at Florida State University, observed willpower in the laboratory: how it gives people the strength to persevere, how they lose control as their willpower is depleted. Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse, but can also be strengthened, over the long term, through exercise.

If all the book did was to assert that willpower exists, most of us would yawn – “Yes, that’s what my grandmother always said.” Progress, however, doesn’t come from theories, but from someone finding a clever way to test the theory.

In the 1960s Walter Mischel studied how children learn to resist immediate gratification through an experiment involving giving them a marshmallow and offering them a deal before leaving them alone in the room: you can eat the marshmallow whenever you want to, but if you hold off until I return you will get a second marshmallow.

Follow-on studies revealed that the four-year-olds who had managed to hold out for the entire 15 minutes went on to score 210 points higher on their SAT scores then the ones who had caved in. 

As young adults they were more popular with their peers and teachers. They went on to earn higher salaries.

They had lower a lower body mass index and were less likely to have had problems with drug use. These were stunning results, because it is rare for anything measured in early childhood to predict anything in adulthood at  a statistically significant level.

The strongest evidence yet for willpower’s long-term benefit was published in 2010. An international team of researchers tracked 1 000 children in New Zealand from birth to the age of 32. The children with high self-control were shown to have grown into adults with better physical health, higher incomes and a lot more.

In the workplace, managers scoring high on self-control were rated more favourably by their subordinates as well as by the peers. They were shown to be better at empathising with others and in considering things from others' perspectives.

So what do we know about willpower and how to develop it? Using experimental research and larger than life examples, Baumeister provides practical insights and guidance.

Amanda Palmer, an edgier Lady Gaga named the high priestess of Brechtian punk cabaret, could hardly be associated with the words “Victorian” or "suppressed".

Yet an undisciplined artist could never have written so much music or sold out so many concerts around the world, or made it to Radio City Music Hall without practising. It has taken self-control to create her “uncontrolled” persona.

She credits her success in large part to what she calls the ultimate training ground - posing as a living statue. The challenge in being a living statue is in the non-reactivity it requires. 

You cannot move your eyes or engage with people. You cannot laugh or wipe your nose, scratch your ear or swat a mosquito on your cheek. Amanda Palmer would typically work for 90 minutes, take a break, and get back on the box for another 90 minutes, then call it a day. “I would get home barely alive, barely able to move my body,” she said.

Why? She hadn’t been expending muscular energy. She hadn't been breathing harder, nor had her heart been beating faster. What was so hard about doing nothing? She had been exercising willpower to resist temptation.

Where does the “power” in willpower come from? The answer is no glucose, no willpower. As researchers tested more and more people in more and more situations  the pattern was confirmed time and again. Glucose depletion can turn the most charming colleague into a monster. 

Don't get into an argument with your boss a few hours before lunch or thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner. When you eat, go for the slow burning foods, those with a low glycaemic index, to maintain steady self-control.

When you are tired, sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control.

Baumeister's laboratory conclusions were that a person has a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as it is used.Those who try to quit smoking while restricting their eating and cutting back on alcohol tend to fail at all three.

He also concluded that you use the same amount of  willpower for all manner of tasks – resisting chocolate, working on a budgetary problem, or working as a living statue.

The bulk of the book Willpower - Rediscovering our greatest strength discusses strategies for improving performance at work and home through techniques for improving self-control.

While the book is a veritable tour de force of this fascinating topic, the chapter I liked most relates to the strengthening of will power and the question as to whether it can in fact be strengthened.

Baumeister uses the extreme example of David Blaine, the endurance artist famous for performing feats involving willpower of gargantuan proportions.

Blaine stood for 35 hours more than 80 feet above New York's Bryant Park, without a safety harness, on top of a round pillar just 22 inches wide. He spent 63 sleepless hours in Times Square encased in a giant block of ice. He provides superb material for studying willpower.

Blaine believes that his achievements are a function of exercises of willpower he has being doing since age five. Exercise does help in an important way, but not all exercise.

The solution seems to be to focus on a very few, very specific activities that are essential to the achievement of a larger goal, such as following an exercise regime for general fitness, maintaining very specific hours for reading to keep yourself professionally up to date, and so on.

Baumeister’s studies revealed that people gained a wide array of benefits in areas of their lives that had nothing to do with the specific willpower exercises they were performing. 

The reason was that their willpower gradually got stronger and so was less readily depleted. And his work proved that you don't need to have exceptional self-control to begin with. As long as you are motivated to do some kind of willpower exercise, your overall self-control will improve.

With improving willpower the surest way to a better life in general, and greater business success in particular, this book is a most worthwhile read.
Readability:      Light ---+- Serious
Insights:          High -+--- Low
Practical:          High ---+- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.

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ian mann  |  book review



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