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30 December 2011

2012 resolution resolution

Filed under: books, psychology — David Wood @ 6:46 pm

It’s the season for new year’s resolutions.  But before composing a new year’s resolution list, some questions:

  • How important is resolve?
  • Should we prioritise self-control?
  • Does willpower matter?

In their recent book “Willpower – rediscovering the greatest human strength“, pioneering psychology researcher Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney have a great many positive things to say about willpower and self-control.  Their analysis provides a timely counterbalance in a world that is generally suspicious of thrift and self-denial, and that tends, instead, to value “self-esteem”, “anything goes”, and “if it feels good, do it”.

I consider this to be a very practical book, on a topic that has been overlooked for too long.

Early in the book, the authors provide this summary of recent changed opinions within social science research:

Baumeister and his colleagues around the world have found that improving willpower is the surest way to a better life.

They’ve come to realise that most major problems, personal and societal, centre on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, under achievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.

Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.  It can cost you the US Open, as Serena Williams’s tantrum in 2009 demonstrated; it can destroy your career, as adulterous politicians keep discovering.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system, and to the shaky prospects for so many people who failed (along with their political leaders) to set aside enough money for their old age…

People feel overwhelmed because there are more temptations than ever.  Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant through the click of a mouse or a phone.  You can put off any job by checking email or Facebook, surfing gossip sites, or playing a video game…  You can do enough damage in a ten-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year.  Temptations never cease…

The book contains very interesting reports of how well-known people nurtured stronger willpower – such as the magician and “endurance artist” David Blaine, the 19th century explorer Henry Stanley Morton, personal effectiveness pioneer Benjamin Franklin, and recovering alcoholics such as guitarist Eric Clapton.   It also summarises the results of numerous psychology experiments.  There’s lots of practical advice:

  1. Willpower gets depleted over time; however, supplies of willpower can be replenished by food and rest
  2. Self-control exercised in one region of our life (e.g. to resist eating tempting food) depletes the immediate store of willpower we have for other regions of our life (e.g. not to lose our temper); we don’t have separate supplies of different kinds of willpower
  3. The same observation has a positive side to it too: exercising willpower in some areas of life, and building greater stamina there (over time) – for example, sustained piano practice, or a discipline of meditation or prayer – typically builds better willpower (over time) in other areas too
  4. Temporary reserves of willpower can be reinstated by eating foods that provide a quick release of sugar – though a more sustainable longer term approach is to eat healthily on a regular basis
  5. Willpower can also be augmented when we have better feedback on what we are doing – for example, when we see ourselves in a mirror, or when we record aspects of our health daily (such as our weight), or when a trusted friend or colleague is aware of our goals and discusses our progress with us
  6. Willpower can also be augmented when we see our efforts as fitting into a larger framework or community, which can be seen as a “higher power” – such as a religious, political, or humanitarian cause
  7. The best use of willpower is to design our lives to minimise the impact of potential distractions and temptations.  This includes the above advice on healthy eating, adequate rest, as well as having a less cluttered life.

To elaborate the final point, here’s a summary of some research described in the final chapter of the book:

Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did…  Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often…?

But then an explanation emerged.  These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts.  They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations…

People with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and in work…  They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.  They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.  They play offense instead of defence…

The advice on having a less cluttered life applies to the set of goals we set ourselves.  Baumeister and Tierney are not keen on lengthy lists of new year’s resolutions.  Worrying about goal number 4 on the list, for example, is likely to limit our ability to concentrate on goal number 2 on the list:

The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.  Self-control without goals or other standards would be nothing more than aimless changes, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

For most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them.  We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are.  By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed.  That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Worse, there are often latent conflicts between different goals.  With too many goals:

  • People worry too much – the more competing demands someone faces, the more time they spend contemplating these demands
  • People get less done – they replace action with rumination
  • People’s health suffers, physically as well as mentally; they paid a high price for too much brooding.

For this reason, even before I get to my own list of new year’s resolutions, I know that the underlying principle is going to be:

  • Do less, in order to make a better job of the things that matter most.

That’s my 2012 “resolution resolution”.

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