In this third part of my series of articles on willpower, you will learn why willpower is like a muscle and useful tips on how to improve your willpower.
Willpower as a muscle
The analogy stems from the findings of recent research which show that willpower, similarly to a muscle, a) uses glucose for energy, and b) can be strengthened with practice.
This is what psychologist and leading researcher on the subject of willpower Roy Baumeister says about the analogy:
“Self-control resembles a muscle in more ways that one. Not only does it show fatigue, in the sense that it seems to lose power right after being used, it also gets stronger after exercise.”
Willpower can be replenished by glucose
Matthew Gailliot of Florida State University and his colleagues (2007) conducted 9 studies that investigated a link between self-control and low glucose levels.
The experiment looked at studies that used various willpower-draining tasks such as:
- Thought suppression tasks (e.g. trying not to think of a white bear),
- Emotional regulation (e.g. trying not to laugh when watching a funny movie while simultaneously trying to remember to squeeze a handgrip every so often),
- Tasks that required high levels of attention and concentration.
In all 9 studies, there were many commonalities. The conclusions of the experiment showed that:
- Self-control tasks resulted in glucose level drops,
- Self-control gets progressively worse as glucose levels continue to drop,
- Giving glucose drinks counteracted the above effects and replenished willpower.
As Dr. David Lewis, author of Impulse puts it:
“Just as a torch bulb glows fainter and fainter when battery runs down, so too, according to this widely held view, does our self-control become weaker as glucose levels fall.”
Gailliot and colleagues suggest that unlike any other cognitive process, self-control is unique in the sense that it is highly susceptible to changes in glucose levels.
And judging by the findings from their experiments, willpower can be replenished by glucose.
In one of those experiments, the researchers gave participants either a sweetened drink with glucose in it or a sweetened drink with Splenda (a sugar substitute that does not increase blood sugar).
It was found that some of the ego depletion effects were reduced with the glucose drink but not the second drink. This is interesting as diabetics are allowed to sweeten their tea with an artificial sweetener – it doesn’t cause fluctuations in blood glucose!
Willpower can be strengthened with practice
Following from the ‘willpower as a muscle’ analogy, self-control can be improved if it is trained.
As Dr. David Lewis astutely compares:
“In much the same way that building up one’s biceps involves using progressively heavier weights, so too does increasing resistance to ego depletion require practice with smaller temptations.”
A study conducted by Muraven and colleagues investigated this very assumption. The researchers asked 69 college students to spend 2-weeks doing one of three self-control exercises. For all of the exercises, the participants were asked to keep a diary of progress.
The self-control exercises included: a) monitoring and improving posture, b) improving mood and emotional states, and c) keeping a food diary.
After 2-weeks, the participants took part in a hand-grip exercise following a thought suppression task (e.g. trying not to think of a white bear while engaging in a written task). This exercise was designed to drain the willpower of the college students.
Interestingly, Muraven and colleagues found that those who had focused on monitoring and improving their posture or keeping a food diary were less susceptible to ego depletion.
That is, the hand-grip exercise didn’t drain their willpower as much it did in the control group (i.e. the group that had no resolution to strengthen their self-control.)
However, there was no effect for the participants that were required to regulate their mood. The researchers suggested that mood regulation isn’t something that can be easily done and might not be as dependent on self-control as initially thought.
How to improve willpower?
So far we’ve learnt that willpower can be strengthened with practice.
Erin Doland, editor-in-chief of a website that provides daily articles on home and office organisation, aptly summarises the key points from Roy Baumeister’s book Willpower on how to go about improving one’s self-control. Here’s Erin:
“For his book Willpower, psychologist Roy Baumeister analysed findings from hundreds of experiments to determine why some people can retain focus for hours, while others can’t.
He discovered that self-control is not genetic or fixed, but rather a skill one can develop and improve with practice. (…)
Baumeister suggests many strategies for increasing self-control. One of these strategies is to develop a seemingly unrelated habit, such as improving your posture or saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’ or flossing your teeth every night before bed.
This can strengthen your willpower in other areas of your life. (…) Even simple behaviours like regularly getting a good night’s sleep are shown to improve focus and self-control.”
– Erin Doland, Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.
Simply put, willpower can be strengthened just by training it.
And because willpower is such as finite resource, we can’t rely on it all the time. That’s why we should try to automate certain behaviours so that they don’t require self-control. We need to build habits so that we can devote our willpower to something else.
Here’s Erin once again:
“Additionally, once the new habit is ingrained and can be completed without much effort or thought, that energy can then be turned to other activities requiring more self-control.
Tasks done on autopilot don’t use up our stockpile of energy like tasks that have to be consciously completed.”
P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.
In case you missed the first two articles, here they are:
– What You Need To Know About Willpower
– What Depletes Your Willpower And What You Can Do About It