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Self-Discipline: How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

brain gym

You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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When It Comes To Retirement Savings, Are We A Bunch Of Marshmallows?

white_marshmallows

There was a classic longitudinal study conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel. It involved pre-school children and marshmallows. Individual children in a room were offered a marshmallow but, if they waited until the researcher returned after a short (but unspecified) time out of the room, they would get TWO marshmallows. The kids consistently responded in one of three ways: They took the one marshmallow instantly; they waited until the researcher returned and got their two marshmallows; or they waited as long as they could but ended up succumbing to the solo marshmallow on offer. Crudely, the kids were either ‘grabbers’ or ‘deferrers.’

Hey that’s interesting but so what? Mischel continued to follow the progress of the kids for the next forty years. On every measure of success, the deffering children went on to do better than the grabbing children – financially, academically, relationships, health, happiness. Deferred gratification is an aspect of impulse control which Daniel Goleman identified as a pillar of emotional intelligence. Maybe you started out thinking about whether your own kids are grabbers or deferrers but now you’re thinking back to your own childhood… How you doin’!?

Mischel studied individuals, not societies or nations, but I have a nagging and a gnawing that we kiwis are a nation of grabbers and that’s reflected in our diminished and diminishing returns.

This concept of deferred gratification has its largest observable tangible manifestation in retirement savings. You have to wait a very long time for your marshmallows. (If you’ve lost your teeth, you’ll still be able to eat marshmallows!)

It’s not just grassroots kiwis having problems with their long-term financial behaviour. A UK study showed that of employees eligible for schemes entirely funded by employers (ie free money), where the only onus on the employee was that they proactively acted to enrol, only 51% enrolled. Wow. In their book ‘Nudge’, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about their own employer’s retirement savings scheme at the University of Chicago. Bear in mind that all these people are professors and such. (There may even have been rocket scientists.) Some two-thirds of academics approaching retirement still had their mothers as the primary beneficiary of their insurance. Before we laugh at the mad professors, go look up how many kiwisavers never shift from those default providers!

It has been suggested that a seventh default provider be set up to be managed by the ‘Guardians of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.’ Guardians? I think this group sounds like it includes Green Lantern, Thor and Iron Man (though, hopefully, not Captain America.)

Is it laziness or human nature? I just visited the ‘Sorted’ website. It asked me for my year of birth via a drop down menu that defaulted to 1910! It took me four clicks to get to 1966. (Hey, that’s a lot of work for my forty-five-year-old wrists.) Maybe the default should be the average year of birth of those who visit their site? I’m guessing those born in 1910 aren’t surfing the web for superannuation options. Frankly, at that age, I don’t think I want to know what they are looking for on the internet.

Politicians can, and will, continue to tinker with schemes. We can blame them for that but New Zealand is a representative democracy and when it comes to mucking around and not collecting nuts like good little squirrels, it’s sad to say that they probably are accurately representing us. They’re grabbers and so are we. So, tinkering with entitlement ages and employer contribution levels that get traded off with lower wage rises and so on isn’t ever going to provide a long-term meaningful solution. Never. It requires a societal attitudinal change and, as Mischel proved, it all starts with the children. (Oh God, won’t someone please think of the children!) You remember the children, the ones who as adults won’t be able to afford houses, yet we’re relying on them to fund both our debts and our retirement income through their taxes.

The good news is that being a grabber or a deferrer isn’t something you’re born and stuck with (like your height or being from Hamilton.) Mischel with Albert Bandura proved that deferring was a set of learnable skills. Will power, it seems, is skill power. So, let’s set up the schools to teach and model delayed gratification behaviours for the sake of the future of our country’s very existence. After all, if there’s anyone who has extensive experience of not getting what they want for prolonged periods of time, its teachers!

 

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Jerry Seinfeld’s Variation On The Endowed Progress Method Of Self Motivation

LS4

There’s a chapter in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ about the influence the perception of endowed progress has on our behaviour. Simply, we feel more inclined to pur in effort towards a goal when we think we’ve already made a committed start. There are neat studies showing how a loyalty card with two stamps already given from day 1 get better results than cards starting from scratch.

Seinfeld tells a story of how he got good at comedy writing. Who’d have thought? He got good at comedy writing by writing a lot of comedy. I recall reading Jules Verne’s biography. Verne said, “Writers write.” Except he would have said it in French. Good call though Jules. Tres bien.

Read Seinfeld’s story here. It’s a simple yet powerful idea that obviously brought him great results. The 2 principle traits of successful people are grit and self discipline. Seinfeld’s idea can help you improve both. If, as a side effect, it makes you funnier, well, that’s a side effect we can all laugh about.

Weight Training Your Self Discipline Muscles

Discipline

Self discipline is a ‘muscle’ we can build by making small temptation corrections then incrementally increasing them

This article by Douglas T. Kenrick realistically stresses that we can’t be trusted. He rattles off some well-known studies showing how ill-disciplined people can be when faced with temptation. Given that other studies, such as Mischel’s marshmallows, have shown that having self discipline is one of the major contributors to a person’s success, a lack of it must be cause for concern.

I want to dislike the article because the guts of it is that we cannot trust ourselves so rather than try to change ourselves to be more reliable, we need to affect our environment. We need to avoid or prevent the temptations being around us as much as possible in the first place. Kenrick writes mainly about food but it is as true of alcohol, smoking, loser friends and time-wasting as well. So, we shouldn’t stock our larders and fridges with sodas, cookies, candy and chips. If we suddenly feel like them and we have to walk to our car to drive to a store, we’re less likely to do so. And if these things aren’t in our faces, we’re less likely to think that we want to. Good luck with that. Avoiding things is always a problem because, ultimately, you can run but you can’t hide. You will be confronted with your enemy-items soon enough via TV, billboards, a friend’s house, your workplace. What happens then? You go even more overboard.

That stuff just gets you fat and unhealthy which isn’t great but what really sucks the success out of your life is the brain-equivalents of soda and candy – time wasters like most TV, most computer games and social networking sites. And , of course, at work we have MEETINGS. (They’re ‘candy’ for someone involved.) I’m not trying to get my nag on here. If you’re happy vegetating, please do so on your own time and dime but, please, don’t whinge about your lack of success.

People who end up happy, healthy, wealthy enough, etc are those who can defer gratification. It’s a skill not a natural attribute. You can develop it if you choose to do so and you choose to do so every day as you put in the work, in the same way as a proper weight-training programme can build muscle.

You don’t start by throwing around Olympic powerlifting levels of weights. You start small and warm up first to prevent injury and demoralisation. The same goes for building your willpower muscles. One simple but effective technique to is self correcting every time you say, “Yeah” with a, “Yes.” It’s not that your classier speech will impress people. You’re training your mind to notice what it is you’re about to do. That’s a critical first step in stopping yourself doing it. Give it a go. See how it impacts your thinking and, more importantly, your behaviour. Once you get your ‘yeahs’ sorted out, then you can work your way up to potato chips and, down the line, big life stuff like your spending, saving and studying habits.

I am so hungry right now. Yeah.

How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

You've only got so much self control; Don't waste it!

You've only got so much self control; Don't waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’d also had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like its on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower  / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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