Understanding self-control is perhaps the most important thing that a psychologist can do. People with it are healthier, get better grades, commit fewer crimes, are luckier in love and have more successful careers.
We describe people with no willpower as weak willed or lacking mental strength. They might talk of struggles, being worn down and running out of mental stamina. In our language, we draw a parallel between self-control and physical exertion. This metaphor is a surprisingly good one.
#1 Choose your battles: don’t proofread an essay before a date
If I go for a long swim before a trip to the gym, I’m not able to lift many weights. I’ve depleted my muscles. The same is true of mental muscles. Exercising self-control in one task depletes our mental stamina for a second task. So we shouldn’t aim to give up smoking, start a diet and write a difficult report all at the same time.
An interesting experiment for amorous-minded readers demonstrated that sexual restraint can be exhausted in the same way. Couples who’d only been dating a short time controlled their attention in a short video-watching task during which the experimenters attempted to distract them. Afterwards they were left alone. The couples who were more depleted expressed more ‘physical intimacy’ than those who hadn’t done the attention-control task.
#2 Drink Lucozade
Athletic feats are a good metaphor for self-control because our brain runs off the same juice as our biceps and thighs. The brain may only be a small organ, weighing about a fiftieth of our total mass, but it consumes a fifth of the body’s calories.
Managing conflicts within ourselves is energy intensive. When we exercise self-control, our blood glucose levels drop, and we have less energy available for subsequent tasks. But just as an endurance athlete can get a boost by sipping an energy drink, so we can get more juice for exercising willpower by drinking a sugary drink. Unfortunately, this tip isn’t much use if what you need willpower for is keeping to a diet.
#3 Exercise your mental muscles
To improve your physical ﬁtness, you train. If you want to build muscles you lift weights. Exer- cise temporarily tires our muscles, but in the long term it strengthens them. You can strengthen your mental muscles in the same way. Keeping to a physical exercise regime is in itself a workout for our self-restraint. In the long run we are happier if we exercise, but before any session the alternatives are more appealing: reading, watching a ﬁlm or going for a drink with our friends are all more pleasurable for most of us.
Researchers have found that exercise regimes don’t just improve our fitness, but also our self-control more generally. Participants who were given a personalised routine reported studying more and watching less television, and even claimed to be more likely to wash their dishes rather than leaving them in the sink.
#4 Have a picture of your family on your desk
Most of us learn about self-control from our families. We’re taught to eat brussel sprouts, go to bed early and not hit our brothers. In later life, our families are a motivation to use self-control. We work hard, cut down on our drinking and avoid snapping at our bosses to make their lives better. Thoughts of our family therefore increase our brain’s reasons to use its limited resources: even when we don’t realise we’re thinking about our family.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that when experimenters unobtrusively remind volunteers of their family, the volunteers exercise more willpower. Reminders of our family motivate us to pull out the stops and squeeze out the last drops of motivation.
#5 Believe you can win
If we know we’re going to fail at something, it doesn’t make sense for our brain to deplete its energy reserves. It might as well save them for something we can complete. When people are given more confidence that they’ll be able to do well at a task, they put more effort into it than people who expect it to be difficult. So if you want the best out of yourself, you have to have confidence that you can do well.
Michael Jordan once said, ‘You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them’. If he’d instead had the mantra, ‘Basketball’s really hard, but I’m going to give it my best shot,’ he might not have done so well.
References in Unthink.