I gave myself a quick refresher on my favorite book about willpower recently because I vaguely remembered several concepts that I thought would be applicable to us as moms in our daily life, as well as for some of the changes I’m trying to make right now. I rediscovered a wealth of great material that I’ll be diving into further later, but for now as an introduction here are 7 things you need to know about willpower.
These ideas are all from Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. This is an affiliate link. Learn more here
1. Willpower is the closest thing to the proverbial ‘silver bullet’ that you’ll find for personal development
Of the two personal traits, that are most consistently tied to success and all the positive aspects you want to see in your life, only one is under your power to change: willpower. The other is intelligence. Psychologists have found that understanding how willpower works is the single biggest thing you can use to increase your overall happiness.
2. Willpower becomes depleted throughout the day
You have one energy reserve that provides willpower which is what you use when you exercise self-control. This same source is used to make decisions. The process of drawing on this source is called ego depletion, and it is depleted most notably by resisting desires, suppressing feelings and making decisions. When you do any of these things you’re drawing on your continued ability to do any of them, and using your willpower in one area of life affects what you have available for the rest of your life.
This includes decisions that you enjoy making. Think about the last time you went on a long shopping trip. Toward the end it was harder to make decisions and when you finished you probably felt exhausted and worn out. But the affect is much less if you were really just window shopping and not making actual purchase decisions.
As moms I think we are especially vulnerable to decision fatigue once our children get old enough to talk. This is why you might start the day cheerfully answering your kids’ questions and end it dreading another question and doing what you can to postpone it or to answer without really thinking. A useful strategy here is to have a set list of mental rules, whether known to your kids are not, if you have predetermined rules or guidelines about things like snacks, screen time, and bed time, you can field their questions without actually making nearly as many on-the-spot decisions. I need to work on this now that my kids are older.
Final thought on this point: if you’re feeling stressed out and negative late at night, the best thing you can do might be to just go to sleep.
3. As willpower decreases, feelings and cravings intensify
Throughout the book they share about interesting studies that have been done to test various theories and tease out what we know about willpower in various ways. One question they asked was how to recognize the state of lower willpower. This proved hard to nail down but the common indicator they found was that feelings are stronger and desires and cravings get more intense. This is unfortunate because having less willpower causes symptoms that require more willpower.
4. We don’t like giving up options
The most fatiguing activity requiring willpower is casting the die, making a final decision, especially one that has an opportunity cost. We have trouble shutting the door on a choice. Psychologists have proven that people have difficulty giving up options even when the options aren’t doing them any good. This is one reason decluttering can be difficult, and suggests it might be a bad activity to do at the end of a busy day.
5. Willpower can be refueled with glucose
Scientific studies have shown that when your willpower has been depleted, eating something sweet can quickly restore it. Everything you eat breaks down into glucose, just at different speeds, but when you’re stressed out and exercising a lot of willpower, this is why you will suddenly really want something sweet. So if you or your spouse have had a mentally intense day don’t make any big decisions or start hard conversations right when you or they get home. If something needs to be talked about that evening at least wait until after dinner.
6. You can take steps to increase your willpower
Studies have shown that doing exercises such as taking 2 weeks to practice good posture or keep a food log of everything you eat can improve the stamina of your willpower and typically has a positive affect on other areas of life during that period of time. Intentional repetition strengthens willpower so that it is depleted slower. Other ideas that would be easy to implement are things like watching what you say by not saying ‘like’ or saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’. Exercising self-control makes you better at exercising self-control.
7. The best strategy is to use it to adjust your habits
Researchers found that people with strong willpower don’t rely on it. They use it ‘ahead of time’ to put good habits in place and remove bad habits. Habits are powerful because they are automated processes that don’t require self control or decision making. When you have good habits in place, you use less energy all day and can be more ready for surprises. Daily habits are difficult to keep as a mom, but this makes me think I should pick a few good ones and fight for them.
Studies also showed that an orderly environment can have a similar affect and will provide cues that influence you positively and trigger automated processes that don’t take as much energy
I’m excited about the potential applications I see here. Let me know what you would use more willpower for, and watch for upcoming posts about willpower and finances, decluttering, weight loss and parenting.