Making the Most of What Willpower You Have

Our capacity to pay attention varies along a continuum from highly effortful to totally effortless. Effortful attention is like when you must read the instructions for a new piece of computer software. For most of us, this requires highly focused concentration that entails the marshaling of all of our mental resources. As such, much energy is consumed by our brain. This results in a decrease of glucose—the brain’s fuel. After an episode of effortful attention, it is difficult to continue with another episode of effortful attention—we simply don’t have the energy for it. In one study, persons who solved a difficult math problem were then given the choice between a healthy (celery and carrot sticks) and an unhealthy (chocolate chip cookies). Those who had worked on the math problem were more likely to pick the unhealthy snack, while the control group that had not dealt with the math problem were more likely to resist the unhealthy snack in favor of the celery and carrots. It just requires more mental energy to resist sweets.

It is best to follow effortful attention with non-effortful attention for a while before returning to effortful attention. And even better, have a snack after effortful attention. Studies have shown that having a healthy snack (i.e., not sugary and non-banana and pbnutritious) can restore our capacity for effortful attention by replenishing our glucose supply.

These activities require significant mental effort:

  • Resisting something you like (like chocolate chip cookies)
  • Doing something unfamiliar/novel (like studying instructions for new software)
  • Doing something you don’t like (take your pick!)

These activities require little or no mental effort:

  • Resisting something you don’t like (for me, wrapping presents—I’m not really a Scrooge—I just don’t like wrapping things, so I procrastinate)
  • Doing something that is familiar (scrapbooking)

Willpower is the capacity to engage in effortful attention. Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister, in his 2011 book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has pulled together the relevant research on what it takes to make the most of one’s capacity for will power. These are among his findings:

  • Take frequent breaks and snacks.
  • Keep in good shape–sleep, exercise, diet healthily.
  • Remove unwanted distractions.
  • Practice with relevant distractions, as in football offenses who practice listening to their quarterback’s signals with blaring loudspeakers in the background to simulate antagonistic crowds of 75,000 fans at away games.
  • Use library study carrels.
  • Avoid unnecessary multi-tasking.
  • Install distractions or obstacles from bad choices, as in the kids in Walter Mischel’s experiments who resisted eating a proffered marshmallow by entertaining themselves with a game or other diversion, just so they wouldn’t have to think about not eating the marshmallow.
  • Declare your intentions publicly, to associates, family, and other stakeholders or observers.
  • Negotiate for appropriate absence of interruptions, as in communicating with your work team or family that you are going to close your door for two hours to work on a project, and to solicit their cooperation—I’ve done this kind of thing by burning a candle and wearing a baseball cap at my computer to signal that I’d prefer not being disturbed.
  • According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unfinished earlier projects cause intrusive thoughts when we attempt to work on subsequent ones, as in “I should really be working on the patio rather than writing this book.” Having a plan for unfinished business reduces and sometimes eliminates intrusive thoughts about that unfinished business that interferes with current priorities.
  • Eliminate boredom increasing your challenges and/or handicapping yourself, and eliminate frustration by increasing or skills and personal resources and/or reducing your degree of challenge. Read Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow (1990) for further explanation. Also see my chapter on the flow concept in Howard (2013).
  • Have a partner for support and monitoring.Cat and Dogs
  • Join a support group, real (face-to-face) or virtual (Internet).
  • Understand and practice Mindfulness (start with meditation training—read Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, in which she treats the pervasive positive influence of meditation/mindfulness).
  • Understand the importance of practice and repetition in establishing new habits or patterns.
  • Three most common ways of battling a bad habit:
    • Vigilant monitoring (e.g., Seinfeld’s calendar app, inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s actual practice of having a year-long calendar on one large page on his wall, then marking a big X every day that he executes his good habit—as in writing for at least 30 minutes—and then enjoying the chain of Xs and only breaking the chain when major obstacles occur—e.g., sickness)
    • Creating distractions or constraints from irresistible cues (Ulysses’ being bound to mast)
    • Changing the situation (e.g., going to library where there’s no refrigerator)

Being in the field of personality assessment, we are certainly aware that some personalities lend themselves to these practices more naturally than others. However, these practices are habits, and habits are learnable by everyone. We must simply pick the habits that feel the most natural.

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