Roy F. Baumeister is the Frances Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and author of the New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
I spoke with him about how self-control works, what makes New Year’s resolutions succeed and how to increase willpower.
My conversation with Roy was over an hour long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out in my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
When we did the laboratory tests, it consistently turned out that after people exerted self-control in one task and then came to a different self-control task, they would do worse on the second one. It really seemed like they had depleted some energy, some kind of resource in the first test, and didn’t have as much available for the second one. That has been found over and over again, and indeed lots of different laboratories have now shown similar effects, too.
The principle here is that you have one stock of willpower or one self-control muscle. It’s a “domain general resource” as people say. It’s not specific to any one activity. People say, “I have good willpower for washing the dishes but not for getting my work done.” That’s wrong. It’s the same willpower. You may allocate it to one thing or the other, but it’s all coming from the same stockpile.
Making choices depletes willpower and afterward your self-control is impaired. If you have people exert self-control and deplete their willpower and later on have them make decisions, then their decision-making is of poor quality. They’re more willing to try to dodge the decision, postpone it, or skip it. They go with very simple strategies like the status quo. They pick things that are more indulgent. They don’t compromise. A compromise is a mentally complex decision. When they’re depleted from exerting self-control, they tend to simplify the task and make a very simplistic sort of decision. Also, there are some kinds of irrational bias that creep into the decision process more if people are depleted.
One thing you can do to take the load off is to make fewer decisions. President Obama, or more likely somebody on his staff, read about our decision fatigue research. Obama decided he was just going to wear blue or gray suits. He said, “I don’t want to waste any time deciding what to wear or what to eat. I have difficult decisions to make.” It’s a very good application of our strategy. The more you follow a routine, plan in advance, or operate on the basis of habit, the less moment-to-moment strain there is, and the less demand for willpower.
Depleted doesn’t mean that your willpower resource is gone. It’s just like being a little bit tired when you’re exercising. The body naturally goes into an energy conservation mode. You still can run just as fast as you could before. The energy is still there. It’s just the natural tendency of the body to conserve it when it’s a little bit depleted.
Beyond that, there are a variety of things that our labs and other labs have been showing that can produce short-term improvements in self-control.
- Thinking about somebody else who has good self-control, who sets a good example.
- Taking responsibility. We found if we randomly assigned people to be the boss that they don’t show that depletion effect as fast. It’s postponed.
- Believing that you have lots of willpower seems to help.
- Motivation. If something’s important, suddenly people can perform well again even though they’re depleted.
All these things suggest that when you first start to get depleted, it’s just a natural reaction to conserve your energy. It’s not that the tank is empty. You can still do it if you want to.
The same glucose energy used for self-control is also used by the immune system to fight illnesses. What I used to do, if I started getting sick, I would make myself continue to work. Even if I got sick and a person said, “You should go lie down and take it easy.” “No. I’m just working. I’m not digging ditches, or carrying heavy loads or anything. I’m just sitting at a computer. That shouldn’t be bad.” I made myself keep on working right through the illness.
In the long run, that was not really very efficient. The reason you’re sleepy is your body wants to use all of its energy to fight the disease. What I’ve started doing is at the first sign I’m getting sick, I try to disengage from work. If I can, I just go to bed and sleep around the clock for a day or two. Again, that lets the body use all its energy, all its willpower, just to fight the disease. Then you don’t get sick.
Just eat something. In the lab we use sugary snacks, which I don’t really recommend people use in their own life because they’re not that good for you. We use it in the lab because we need something that works really fast and sugar gives you a quick burst of energy. Unfortunately, it’s then followed by a quick crash. Your metabolic energy goes up and then it comes down again in a big way. Eat something, like protein, that your body will burn over a longer period of time.
Rest is good. In general, self-control problems and difficulties seem to show up with people who don’t get enough sleep. The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.
People will make five New Years’ resolutions. Each time you work on one, you’re taking away your capacity to work on the other. You don’t have any more willpower magically. You have the same amount. If I say I’m going to use it to eat more healthy food, and stop yelling at my romantic partner, and I’m going to read some books, and stick with an exercise program, and stop swearing, the energy I put into one will take away from the success of others. No wonder that New Years’ resolutions have such a dismal reputation for failure.
Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one. If swearing is the easiest, then do that one first because that will strengthen your willpower and increase your capacity when you move onto the harder ones. If you make this resolution and you actually keep it, your body gets used to exerting self-control and it becomes stronger and more ready to take on another challenge.
Psychology has just really found two traits that predict success across a broad range of occupations, and activities. One is intelligence, and the other is self-control. The key difference to me is that it’s very difficult to improve intelligence. There were a variety of strategies tried with Head Start and things like that. Those don’t really seem to produce any lasting gains in intelligence. Whereas self-control can be improved, even in adulthood. This is a great avenue by which psychology can maybe help people and make a positive difference in lots of people’s lives.
If you want the extended interview (where Roy explains the easiest way to increase willpower capacity as well as how to make dieting effective) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
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