I was pleased when I found The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal. There has been a plethora of books about the science of willpower with this book brings us up to date with the state of the art.
This book was created from a popular course that Kelly taught at Stanford University. There is so much useful information here that I will only touch upon only a few points
Maintain your Willpower Energy
Kelly explains that self control is like a muscle, and as such can be built up, but also can be exhausted. Will power is based in the higher functions of the brain, so if our glucose levels are in decline, so does our ability to exercise will power. I think this is one of the reasons we should not go grocery shopping hungry. Maybe all we need is a healthy snack or drink. our body does know if we are drinking a real energy source or a diet drink that does not provide real energy.
We should also realize that this weakness is a mental limitation and not a physical one. Can we train ourselves to push through this weakness and exercise control. By understanding this book we can be more aware of when we are weakened.
Focus on our Good Goals, not the “Goodness” of Our Actions.
Studies have found that we want to feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about an action we have taken, we are more likely to make a bad decision immediately after. We feel good about ordering a healthy salad, so we finish it up with a fat filled dessert.
In a reported study a group of people was asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with a pair of discriminatory statements. Another group did the same for a pair of pretty neutral statements. Both groups were then asked to choose between a male or a female candidate to fill an executive position in a traditionally male industry.
The study found that those individuals that had the opportunity to object to a sexist statement were more likely to discriminate against the female candidate.
The bottom line is to focus on why we were good (to achieve our goal) rather than on the “goodness” of our actions.
Train Ourselves to Recognize Real Happiness
If you are like me, you have heard about societies where people have very little of the niceties of life that we have, yet they are very happy. We are a victim of years of advertising that tells us how happy we will be only when we have acquired the latest toy or trinket. We have to recognize that the promise of reward can be very enticing and yet will lead to regret and remorse (think Las Vegas).
Leverage those experiences that get your dopamine flowing to make yourself do those things that will provide lasting happiness and satisfaction. Maybe use the prospect of a modest shopping trip to encourage us to continue our exercise routine.
Avoid Guilt When We do not Live Up to Our Expectations
Related to the earlier point about feeling good about our actions, we will also behave poorly when we feel bad about ourselves. We maybe slip and eat a cookie and then feel so guilty that we splurge and eat an entire half a cake. Often this is because we were very optimistic about how we would perform and then when we disappoint ourselves we throw in the towel. It is better to assume that we will be tempted and think through how we will respond to the temptation when it presents itself.
If you still slip up take it easy on yourself and avoid labeling yourself as a loser. Understand that everyone makes mistakes and you need to prepare yourself to avoid those mistakes next time.
There is much more fascinating advice in this book. There is the study that shows how chimpanzees are better than grad students in delaying gratification in order to achieve a greater reward. The reason that we fail to make the best decision shows that we are too smart for our own good.
Please pick up a copy of the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It at Amazon.com. Any of your purchases made at Amazon after clicking through from my site helps support my blog. Thanks!