Do You Have the Willpower to Get it All Done?

Posted by on May 9, 2016 in Book Reviews, Focus | 0 comments

There are some days when I have all the willpower and self-discipline I could ever imagine having and other days, well, I can’t muster enough to just get the basics done for the day.

What’s up with that? I have talked to a lot of other people and they seem to have the same problem – inconsistency plagues us all apparently.

But I wanted to know why. After all, all the experts push consistency in just about everything.

The Power of Habit by Charles DuhiggSo, I did a little digging and found a book, The Power of Habit Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. After reading it, I’m putting this book in my list of top favorites, probably close to the top. So many books rehash all the “stuff” we already know or suspect. Not this one. In this book, I learned a few things, and one of those things has to do with inconsistent levels of willpower and self-discipline.

I learned that “dozens of studies show that willpower is the simple most important keystone habit for individual success.”

It’s more important than IQ and other factors. In one study, researchers said that “Highly disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

Of course additional studies went on to show that the same result could be found in adults and work situations.

But that doesn’t answer my question … so let’s go on.

Duhigg continued, “And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a HABIT.” (emphasis added)

Researcher Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania said, “Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard – but that’s because they have made it AUTOMATIC. Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.” (emphasis added)

Now many businesses have tuned into this idea of building habits in the training of their employees. Starbucks does it. Deloitte and Touche does it. Paul O’Neill did it at Alcoa.

But how does willpower, self-control and self-discipline work?

It’s easiest to explain by illustration. In a study conducted at Stanford University, four-year-olds were presented with marshmallows and a deal. They could have one marshmallow right away or wait a few minutes and get two. They were left alone with the marshmallows. About 30% of the youngsters ignored the urge to eat that one marshmallow right away, not like the majority of the other children. Years later, they tracked down many of the children in the study, now in high school.

“They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everybody else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs.”

Duhigg wrote, “If you knew how to avoid the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler, it seemed, you also knew how to get yourself to class on time and finish your homework once you got older, as well as how to make friends and resist peer pressure.

“It was as if the marshmallow-ignoring kids had self-regulatory skills that gave them an advantage throughout their lives.”

That still hasn’t explained to me why willpower is inconsistent – except to maybe say the skill hasn’t been fully developed (Oh good, one more thing I can work on in my personal development journey…)

But thank goodness Mark Muraven, a psychology PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, didn’t accept the idea that willpower is a skill. He recognized that willpower fluctuated in people. He opined that it wasn’t a skill that people either had – or didn’t have. He was compelled to do a study.

He filled two bowls – one with warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and one with radishes. He forced some study participants to exert their willpower. Half of the students were instructed to eat cookies and ignore the radishes; the other half were told to eat radishes and ignore the cookies. (I know which group I’d like to be in, don’t you?) Anyway, the results were very interesting.

The cookie eaters were in heaven. Yum! The radish eaters were in agony. The researchers watched some radish-eaters actually pick up cookies and smell them or pick up a few and then lick the crumbs and chocolate off their fingers.

After five minutes the researchers came back into the room. Muraven estimated that the radish-eaters had fully taxed their willpower, while the cookie-eaters had not. So he explained they would wait 15 minutes and continue the study.

In the meantime, researchers returned, bearing a puzzle for the participants to “pass the time” until the study continued. The puzzled looked fairly simple, you just had to trace a geometric pattern without lifting the pencil from the page or going over the same line twice. If the participant wanted to quit, the researcher instructed them to ring a bell and implied the puzzle wouldn’t take too long to complete.

In reality, the puzzle was impossible to solve. And, it was the second part of the study – and produced some very interesting results.

The cookie-eating students labored at the puzzle for a long time and persevered. With their unused reservoir of willpower, they looked relaxed. They would start, hit a roadblock and then start again, and again, and again. Overall, the cookie-eaters spent an average of almost 19 minutes before being stopped by the researcher or ringing the bell.

Not so much with the radish-eaters. Remember that Muraven believed that they had expended much of their willpower ignoring cookies and eating radishes. They got frustrated, complained that the puzzle was a waste of time and some of them even put their heads on the table and closed their eyes. On average, the radish-eaters only worked on the puzzle about eight minutes before quitting and ringing the bell. That’s 60% less time than the cookie-eaters.

Muraven’s conclusion?

“By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, we had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster. There’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arm or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”

In other words, willpower is finite.

The book goes on to explain that research has shown that you can strengthen the willpower muscle. Two researchers in Australia, Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, created a willpower workout. They created a physical exercise routine and forced participants to engage in the routine trying to create a habit. Week after week they exercised more frequently, using more willpower each time they hit the gym.

Then Oaten and Cheng scrutinized the rest of the participant’s lives. They wanted to see if greater willpower was being exerted in other areas in their lives. Were they strengthening the willpower muscle? The answer was probably. To be certain, the researchers conducted other studies with different participants, one having to do with developing financial self-discipline and another centered on academic improvement. The results were the same.

When self-discipline and willpower is strengthened in any area, the person exhibits greater willpower and self-control in other areas as well. The muscle gets stronger just like your legs, heart and core get strengthened and that has an impact on many aspects of life.

There it is – the answer to my question. When willpower is exerted in one area, it depletes the reserve for use elsewhere. That is, unless you exercise it and strengthen it. In other words, the answer is to build up more willpower “strength.”

While you might be thinking this has more to do with personal habits – exercise, smoking, eating – it really has to do with work and business, too.

Willpower, self-discipline and self-control are critical elements for the success of an entrepreneur and SBO (small business owner). We have to persevere and be exceedingly dedicated and committed. So that willpower muscle is one we have to really beef up.

Knowing that the willpower muscle carries over from activity to task to activity, going to the gym or making time to exercise moves up in the importance ranking. In my mind we can kill two birds with one stone – improve health and improve the willpower muscle.

Like I said, I really like this book. I’m glad to know that I have the power to develop my willpower muscle – and that there is an efficient way to do that improves life and business altogether!

Just think about it.



Go ahead, order it up. Just click the image below. You won’t be disappointed.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg





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