The science behind self-discipline
Here’s a sobering statistic for you—of all the New Year’s resolutions made, a whopping 88 per cent of them fail miserably. It seems nowadays willpower is in short supply. But it’s not hard to believe; after all, modern life is rife with temptations. Cheap junk food surrounds us, and let’s face it, it tastes awesome. Giant-screen TVs, Internet poker, Twitter—who wants to get up off the couch to go to the gym? It’s not so much that our collective willpower has never been weaker, it’s that it has never had to work harder. The good news? Knowing just a little bit about how self-discipline works can help us figure out just what we’re doing wrong.
Here’s six reasons why your willpower is failing you, and what you can do about it.
1. Asking willpower to do too much
A slew of scientific research shows the most important thing you can understand about willpower is that it’s a limited resource. That means, once you’ve used up your reserve of it, you’re pretty much done. In one such experiment, group A had to watch and focus on a boring video scene, while group B did not; then both groups had to circle each ‘e’ in a long piece of test. Group A, who had already used much of their willpower to watch the tedious video, gave up much faster.
Translation: If you’re trying to quit smoking and work out five days a week, that’s great—but don’t try and do it at the same time. Spread your objectives out over the year. And when possible, don’t leave your goals to the end of the day when you may have already depleted your cup of self-control.
2. Bad timing
Researchers have revealed that the prefrontal cortex manages our willpower, along with our short-term memory and our ability to focus and solve abstract problems. That’s a lot for one piece of tissue to do. Why is this important? Because if these other functions are taxing our prefrontal cortex, then it won’t have enough energy left to boost our fortitude when we need it to. In a Stanford University study, one group had to remember a two-digit number, while another had to remember a seven-digit one. Both had to walk down a hallway then choose from two different snacks, chocolate cake or fruit salad. The seven-digit, mentally taxed group were almost twice as likely to choose cake over fruit.
Translation: If you have the kind of day that strains your prefrontal cortex (intense focusing, solving abstract problems, exercising short-term memory), then adjust your schedule so that you’re using your willpower earlier in the day before your brain gets tired: work out in the morning and avoid doing your grocery shopping at night—if you must, then stay away from the candy aisle.
3. Bad chemistry
Willpower requires actual energy—specifically, glucose. Several studies have shown that when we use willpower, we eat away at our stores of glucose. If we fail to replenish these stores, then our ability to muster our resolve stays low. On the flip side, a shot of glucose—say, a few sips of real juice or a piece of fruit—can fill those reserves back up. The key is, it must be actual sugar: Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister showed that subjects who drank lemonade sweetened with a sugar substitute were not able to restore their self-discipline to the same degree as those drinking lemonade that contained real sugar.
Translation: Before you give up on your goal for the day, try to have something sweet—a piece of fruit is obviously better than a sugary drink or treat, but if that’s all you have on hand, limit your portion to a few sips or small bites.
4. Dwelling on willpower itself
If you’re trying to quit junk food, then spending time imagining how the potato chip breaks apart in your mouth or the minty chocolate melts on your tongue is going to make your job a lot harder. Distraction is key. Back in the 1960s, Columbia University professor Walter Mischel studied the willpower of four-year-olds by having them sit in a room in front of a marshmallow. The deal was, if they could wait 20 minutes until he came back, they could get two marshmallows. Many crumbled within minutes, but he found that those who lasted the 20 minutes distracted themselves with such things as singing songs or playing with their shoelaces. The same held true for imagination—more kids were successful if Mischel suggested to them that they think of the marshmallow as something altogether different, like a cloud.
Translation: If you feel yourself obsessing over the taste of food, or the long walk to the gym, then recognize what’s going on and be quick to distract yourself with something as simple as a phone call, putting on your favourite song, or packing up your gym bag. Alternatively, visualize the object of your willpower as something entirely different—perhaps turn your bag of candy into a packet of toxic waste.
5. Not exercising your willpower
While exerting willpower throughout the day depletes it, exercising willpower just a little on a daily basis can develop it over the long term. In other words, willpower is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. The trick here is not exhausting it outright, especially on those days when you need it the most. Studies have shown that something as small as using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth can actually build up your willpower. Studies also show that the effects of such exercises can spill over into all areas of life—people report watching less TV and doing more housework along with drinking less, quitting smoking and not eating as much junk food.
Translation: Choose a nightly practice that a) requires a small amount of willpower, b) has nothing to do with your goal and c) can be done at the end of your day so it doesn’t interfere with your actual daily objectives. Perhaps a few words in a daily journal, reading five pages of a novel before bed or making your lunch for the following day.
6. Not smiling
It may sound cheesy, but a frown can cause more than just wrinkles. Researchers don’t know why, but it seems that when people are in a good mood, they simply have more determination.
Translation: If you know you’re going to require discipline at a certain time of the day—to cook a healthy dinner, hit a Pilates class, go for a jog—then make sure you can tap into something that makes you smile to help you follow through with your goal. Bookmark a funny YouTube video, re-read a funny email, or just play an upbeat song on your iPod.