Lead and Be Strong In Your Decision-making

Being strong and firm in your choices and decisions is a valuable skill to master.

It is a skill because in a world that is abundant with options, it can be really difficult to a) choose in the first place, b) be confident that the choice you made is the right one, and c) stick with your decision once you’ve made it and not “flake” on it.

Perhaps more importantly, an opportunity cost of deciding is time and there’s always another option where you could spend it better, spend it elsewhere, or simply to save it.

Because time is indeed a precious resource.

You have probably noticed how the importance of time trickles into and manifests itself in everyday language.

You spend time with people.

You try to find time.

People who would like some of your time ask politely whether you have a moment to spare?

There is no time like the present, so why waste it on trying to decide?

As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice puts it:

“Time spent dealing with a choice is time taken away from being a good friend, a good spouse, a good parent, and a good congregant.”

You also expend precious mental resources when trying to decide.

In my earlier posts on willpower, you will realise that using up your willpower and decision-making capabilities on one decision means you will have less to use for the other decision.

That’s why Barry urges us to:

“learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by. The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”

And it’s not just trying to make a decision that uses up your willpower, merely thinking about making the decision will have the same effect.

The problem of abundant choice in the world rears its ugly head in the most inconspicuous of situations.

Like on a night out.

In his book Behavioral Economics Saved My Dog, behavioural economist Dan Ariely tackles this topic and comes up with a decent solution.

“When someone asks what do you want to do tonight?, what they are implicitly saying is: What is the most exciting thing we can do tonight, given all the options and all the people involved?

The problem is that figuring out the absolute best solution (the optimal solution) is very difficult.

First, we need to bring to mind all the possible alternatives; next we need to work out our preferences and the preferences of all the people in the group.

Then we have to find the one activity that will maximise this set of constraints and preferences.”

Okay so once you’ve gone through these motions – what’s next?

Ariely suggests:

“To overcome this problem, I would set a rule that limits the amount of time you are allowed to spend searching for a solution, and I would choose a default activity in case you fail to come up with a better option.

For example, take an acceptable good activity (going to drink at X, playing football at Y) and announce to your friends that, unless someone else comes up with a better alternative, in ten minutes you are all heading out to X or Y.

I would also set up a timer on your phone to make it clear that you mean business and to make sure that the time limit is honoured.

Once the buzzer sounds, just start heading out to X or Y, asking everyone to come with you and tell the people who do not join you immediately that you will meet them there. 

After repeating this tactic a few times, your friends will get used to it and you should experience an end to this wasteful habit.”

What you can do

It’s tough making decisions.

But sometimes, among all the options that you’re considering, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you choose.

Dan Ariely explains why:

“The larger point is that once we have spent a substantial amount of time on a decision, and we still can’t work out which option is the best, it must mean that the overall value of the competing options is more or less the same. It is not that the options are identical, but that the difference in their overall quality is hard to distinguish.” 

So if – on a night out for example – you’re having trouble deciding between option A, B, and C which are identical in value then save yourself the trouble and just choose any option.

You’d be surprised to notice that once you’ve confidently made the decision to go to place A and lead the group, that option somehow becomes more valuable because it’s moved the interaction forward.

And your unwavering confidence in your decision and you’re enthusiasm about your choice rubs off on your group of friends.

And more often than not, the choice you made turns out to be the right one.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my email list.


How To Improve Your Willpower

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:

  1. Self-control tasks resulted in glucose level drops,
  2. Self-control gets progressively worse as glucose levels continue to drop,
  3. 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



What Depletes Your Willpower And What You Can Do About It

Apart from time spent resisting temptation and just getting tired from a full day’s work – what else should you know of that will deplete your willpower? IMG_4207.JPG

Lack of sleep

Your willpower may dwindle as the day progresses, but you can enjoy peak willpower levels the moment you wake up every morning.

Your mind is fully rested and your willpower levels are replenished after a goodnight’s sleep.

But if you fail to rest up properly during the night, not only will your focus and concentration suffer, but your willpower and ability to make good decisions will suffer, too.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, advocates the importance of getting a good night’s rest:

“Sleep deprivation (even just getting less than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy.

The prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit and it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response.

Unchecked, the brain overreacts to ordinary, everyday stress and temptations. Studies show that the effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are equivalent to being a little bit drunk!”

Luckily, poor self-control caused by sleep deprivation can be easily reversed just by getting more sleep. Here’s Kelly:

“The good news is any step toward more or better quality rest can be a real boost to self-control. When the sleep-deprived catch a better night’s sleep, their brain scans no longer show signs of prefrontal cortex impairment.”

Staying up late

At the very end of your day, your willpower will surely be running on empty. And instead of going to sleep to rest to regain your energy, you will have to eat food to sustain your inner night owl.

What food might that be? Chances are you’ll eat whatever your heart desires.

After a full day’s worth of making decisions, your mind is exhausted. Your capacity for self-control is very low.

It would be in your best interest to try to avoid making big decisions late in the evening.

Here’s Roy Baumeister on our evening willpower levels:

“Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are committed after 11: 00 p.m. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior, gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.”


Making decisions

In the Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz emphasises that we live in an world that is abound with choice.

What types of jeans to wear, what type of beer to drink, what type of restaurant to eat in…the list is endless.

He claims that this abundance in choice can in reality be more paralysing than liberating.

Because of so much choice out there, we really need to pick our (choice) battles. That is, we need to be selective in our decision-making.

Here’s Barry:

“We must learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by. The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”

There is an abundance of choice in the world but your willpower is limited.

The odds are stacked against you and that’s why you should be selective in your decision-making.

Thinking about making decisions

Interestingly enough, ego depletion doesn’t only happen due to active decision-making.

In fact, research suggests that we can drain our own willpower just by watching or imagining others making decisions.

In an experiment by Vohs and Faber (2007), participants were required to put themselves in the shoes of fictional waiters who were forbidden to eat while working in a gourmet food restaurant.

The participants had to exercise self-control by merely imagining being a waiter and thinking of the various difficulties one might have when trying to resist eating food on the job.

Later, the participants were shown pictures of watches, cars, and other appliances, and were asked to rate how much money would they be willing to pay for them.

It was found that this imagining of being in the shoes of a waiter led the participants to be willing to spend more on these goods compared to the control group (i.e. the group that didn’t imagine being a waiter).

Because of this, they had much less self-control that would stop them from spending more money on certain items later on.

The main lesson from this piece of research is to conserve willpower and use it wisely.

After all, if self-control is exercised on one thing, then you’ll be less likely to exercise self-control successfully on another thing.

In his book Impulse: why we do what we do without knowing why we do it, Dr. David Lewis illustrates this point nicely:

“Refrain from having a fight with your partner before leaving for work and you may find it harder to control your irritation with a colleague later in the day.

Refuse a second helping of strawberry cheesecake at lunch and you may find it far harder to resist a high-calorie snack in the afternoon. (…)

This resource is easily exhausted and, once depleted, the likelihood of self-control failure increases. Ego depletion may occur, for example, in people who have been trying to stop thinking about food all day or coping with a stigmatised social identity. (…)

The more we have to employ self-control in one area of life the less there is available for use in another.”

Low blood sugar

It might just make up 2% of our body mass, but the brain consumes 75% of all our blood glucose. Naturally, whenever we experience low blood sugar, our brain is being starved of very fuel it needs to function properly.

Ever heard of the term ‘hangry’? It stands for hungry when angry. The irritability that you experience when hungry is your brain’s way of telling you that it’s struggling to function optimally.

Your more rational part of the brain starts to shut down and any sense of self-control goes out the window.

As Dr. David Lewis puts it:

“Low blood glucose has been associated with such problems as lack of self-control, aggression, criminality, poor emotional control, impulsivity, difficulties in coping with stress and giving up smoking.”

You can learn more about this trend of research in next week’s post (sign up for an update so you don’t miss it).

Poor nutrition

What you eat and how you nourish yourself also influences your willpower.

Not only should we eat regularly to avoid low blood sugar levels, but we should focus on eating food that is healthy and nutritious.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, mentions the importance of diet:

“Nutrition comes into play because it also influences how available energy is for the brain. Something as simple as eating a more plant-based, less-processed diet makes energy more available to brain and can improve every aspect of willpower from overcoming procrastination to sticking to a New Year’s resolution.”


In an earlier post on cravings, I mention a useful conceptualisation of our brain and how we are governed by two systems: the ‘hot’ system and the ‘cool’ system (for more on that, click here).

What stress does is it accentuates the ‘hot’ system and attenuates the ‘cool’ system. That’s why we struggle to resist temptations and fail to exercise self-control when under stress.

Here’s Kelly:

“The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making.

Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.”

In a nutshell

What depletes your willpower

  • Lack of sleep and staying up late
  • Making decisions and thinking of making decisions
  • Low blood sugar (being hungry)
  • Poor nutrition
  • Stress

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.

More posts on willpower:
What You Need To Know About Willpower
How to Improve Your Willpower


What You Need to Know About Willpower

We live in an age where everything around us is engineered to attract our attention and sustain it for extended periods of time.

Commercials, advertisements, social media, you name it.

Self-control is important in fighting against these influences.

Nowadays, it is more important than ever.

But self-control is cognitively effortful and psychologically costly. To make matters worse, willpower is a finite resource which is used up whenever we exercise self-control.

As human beings, we are fundamentally ‘flawed’ in that we are impulsive creatures. We overvalue immediate pleasures over larger-later rewards. We prefer instant gratification over delayed gratification.

Although we are impulsive creatures, we are also rational creatures that know logic, can contemplate the meaning of our existence, and know what’s good for us in the long-term.

Oftentimes, we have to resist smoking, drinking alcohol, eating junk food, and eating sweets and chocolate because we know that these might not be the best things for our long-term health or long-term goals.

It is our willpower that helps us resist temptation and saves us from giving into our cravings.

So what is willpower?

Psychologist Roy Baumeister et al (2007) says it is the greatest human strength and defines willpower as the ability to restrain or override one response, making a different response possible.

In this first part of my series of articles on willpower, you will learn how and why willpower runs out.

Willpower training is always going to be challenging

Willpower as a limited, finite resource

Leading researcher on willpower literature Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (1998) investigated willpower depletion in participants. In one experiment, participants were required to try to solve an impossible task.

One group of participants was given chocolate chip cookies that they had to resist when trying to complete the task, whereas the other group was given horseradish.

It was found that those who had to resist eating cookies persisted at the task for significantly less time on the problem-solving task than those who had to resist the horseradish.

Roy explain this study in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength as follows:

“Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost, in the sense that afterward participants were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration. It was not that eating chocolate improved performance.

Rather, wanting chocolate but eating radishes instead, especially under circumstances in which it would seemingly be easy and safe to snitch some chocolates, seems to have consumed some resource and therefore left people less able to persist at the puzzles.”

Exercising your willpower by resisting temptation will no doubt drain your ability for future self-control. Partly in homage to Freud, Roy termed this depletion of self-control as ego depletion.

But resisting temptation is only the tip of the iceberg as to what uses up our willpower.

In his book Impulse: why we do what we do without knowing why we do it, Dr. David Lewis talks about how self-control relates to a number of different functions. Here’s David:

“[Self-control] forms part of a much larger collection of executive functions concerned with self-monitoring, coping with stress, considering different options, weighing up alternatives and making decisions.

All of these draw on the same limited energy source, which means that resisting temptation in one direction can make it far harder to do so in another.”

In a nutshell

Willpower is a limited resource

  • Resisting temptation will drain your ability for self-control.
  • Our willpower can be drained by making decisions, weighing up options, and coping with stress.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter so you don’t miss out on the rest of the posts in this willpower series.

More posts on willpower:
What Depletes Your Willpower & What You Can Do About It
How to Improve Your Willpower