However you define success – a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health, financial security, the freedom to pursue your passions – it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities.
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When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict “positive outcomes” in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control.
Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise.
Where does willpower come from?
This mental energy is fuelled by glucose in the bloodstream. Glucose produced by digestion goes into the bloodstream and is pumped throughout the body. The glucose itself doesn’t enter the brain, but it’s converted into neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that your brain cells use to send signals. If you ran out of neurotransmitters, you’d stop thinking.
How can you strengthen your willpower ‘muscle’?
• Know your limits. Willpower is finite. Each day may start with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, but then all day things chip and nibble away at it. You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep. You put up with traffic frustrations. You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you. You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting
• Decision fatigue – pick your battles. Remember that what matters is the exertion, not the outcome. If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you’re still depleted because you struggled. Forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to at the moment will leave you with less willpower.
• Realistic plans. Whenever you set a goal, beware the planning fallacy. When was the last time you heard of a highway or building being completed six months early? Late and over budget is the norm. Leave some flexibility and anticipate set-backs when you plan.
• Sleep! A Rested Will is a Stronger Will. The old advice that things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion. Beware of making binding decisions when your energy is down because you’ll tend to favour options with short-term gains and delayed costs.
• Eat! The old advice about eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly on days when you’re physically or mentally stressed. If you have a test, an important meeting, or a vital project, don’t take it on without glucose. Don’t get into an argument with your boss four hours after lunch. Don’t thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner. Above all, don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight. If you’re a smoker, don’t try quitting while you’re also on a diet.
• Positive Procrastination. Procrastination is usually a vice, but very occasionally there is such a thing as positive procrastination. Procrastinators typically avoid one task by doing something else. This was aptly recognised by Robert Benchley, one of the deadline-challenged members of the Algonquin Round Table. ‘The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’
• The List. The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal. A to-do list is a great way of managing your goals, if you keep it realistic, but it can sound dreary and off-putting. If so, try thinking of it as a to-don’t list: a catalog of things that you don’t have to worry about once you write them down.
Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney is published by Penguin, 6th September, £9.99