The Way of the Will part 2: Will Like a Muscle

Last year, Roy Baumeister’s Willpower made a big splash in productivity circles by reviving the idea of will.  Building on research done by his team over the last 15 years, he coined the term ‘ego depletion’ to describe the way in which, like a muscle, our willpower becomes fatigued with use.  In other words, after successfully using the will for a difficult task, further attempts to resist temptation are likelier to fail.

I haven’t yet read this entire book, so this will not be a full analysis.  My thoughts here are based on book reviews, interviews, excerpts—the usual meme-trail things leave on the internet.  I became excited about these ideas because I see modern science corroborating my biggest find of the 19th century.  Some years ago while researching homeschooling I found a mentor in Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century British teacher who led a small revolution in children’s education.  She rejected the current Darwinian idea that lower-class children were not suited for a full education, and laid out a rigorous yet humane course of instruction based on use of the best literature, careful formation of mental habits, and respect for the student as a self-governing individual.  Her six-volume series on education is a rich source of wisdom on not only child-training, but human nature and character development in general.  When I read the sections about training your child’s will, it was game-changing for me.  I realized that the first child in my life who needed this training was ME.  This was a whole new way of looking at self-control, habits, and character which answered many of the questions I had about my own inner struggles.  My chief feeling was, “WHY HAS NOBODY EVER TOLD ME THIS BEFORE?  WHY ISN’T EVERYBODY TOLD THIS?”

In a back-handed compliment Baumeister credits the Victorians for having “this vague idea of it (willpower) being some form of mental energy.”  Mason’s understanding of the will was anything but vague.  Excited by recent research in her era into the physiology of the brain, and informed by her experiences and spiritual beliefs, she detailed her unique understanding of will, habit, and personality that modern psychology is just now beginning to catch up to.

Mason’s, and Baumeister’s, observation is that the mental operation of the will resembles the physical operation of muscles in key ways.  One, as we have noted, is that its ability to operate becomes depleted as it is used.  The will has two specific operations:

  • decision making
  • carrying out our decisions in the face of external or internal pressure to do otherwise

We spoke last time of the will’s role in decision making.  This act of choosing ranges from the trivia of which cereal to buy, to the choice of a mate, to the self-sacrifice of martyrdom in a noble cause.  Once a choice is made, however, the will’s work is not over.  For sustained efforts, we must re-choose continually, at each moment of temptation, distraction, or pressure.  Some helpful momentum occurs after the initial effort,  but each further act of will requires its share of mental energy, leading to poorer and less freely willed decisions as fatigue grows.

So choosing and sustaining our choices uses up mental energy, the willpower itself.  But, like a muscle, the will also recuperates when rested, gains strength through regular exercise, and requires proper nourishment.

One exercises the will just as one does a muscle, by using it.

“The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites.  But…the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these; for though the will appears to be of purely spiritual nature, yet it behaves like any member of the body in this––that it becomes vigorous and capable in proportion as it is duly nourished and fitly employed.”               —Charlotte Mason

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. 

In 1970 a group of children were given a test of their ability to delay gratification.

Don't be squishy like these marshmallows!

“The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice (cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel) was placed on a table, by a chair. The children could eat the marshmallow, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.”

Of course some children were able to resist temptation, and others were not.  But the interesting bit occurred years later.

“Since Mischel’s daughters knew and grew up with many of the original test subjects, through casual conversation, (he) discovered there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later.  The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that preschool children who delayed gratification longer…were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.  A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.”

Further studies showed continued life success in the group with greater self-control, and actual differences in the structure of the brain itself.

But what about those kids who ate the marshmallow straight off?  Are they stuck without willpower for life?  No, we can change.  We can change ourselves.  Not overnight, but over time.  Any regular exercise of the will strengthens it for use in all areas of life.  Recently researchers found that people who successfully stick with diet plans tend to make gains in other unrelated areas of their lives.  Regardless of the plan used, those who lost weight also reported other positive changes such as stopping smoking, improving relationships, and becoming more organized.  Exercising self-control in eating enhanced the ability to control self overall.

You do not have to change into a powerhouse of stoicism overnight.  You can start small, just as when you begin lifting weights.  You start with small weights and work your way up.  So pick one little thing you would like to change about your behavior, something doable.  And stick with it.  One of the major pitfalls of any attempt at change is the idea that ‘just this once won’t hurt.’  It’s true that one cookie, or one day off, or giving in once doesn’t make a measurable difference in the long run.  But the act of choosing to give in does.  Each lapse is an opportunity lost.  Each time you stick to your resolve, even for something that’s ‘not that big a deal’, you strengthen your will muscles.  So tell yourself, when temptation arises, that you are not just avoiding 30 calories, you are not just gaining 5 minutes, you are not just keeping that one spot clutter-free, you are becoming more awesome.

Once you start wearing your willpower glasses, a host of small decisions will become clearer.  “Why not?” turns into, “That would be giving in!”  Any little thing you know you should do, but usually slack off on, is an opportunity for a win.  Your whole day becomes more epic when lunch, making your bed, keeping off of social media, etc. are little victories that make you stronger.  You are becoming Superman!

Baumeister even recommends small, arbitrary changes like mousing with your non-dominant hand to exercise will further.  But really, if you have your act so together that you have to invent difficulties for yourself in order to practice self-control, why are you reading this blog?  Go save the world or something.  The rest of us should pick battles that advance our goals in order to make the most of a limited resource.  You’ve only got so much willpower to begin with; use it wisely.

But what to do when will power is depleted?  How do you stick to your resolve when you’re all willed out?  Are we then helpless?  No, Charlotte has a secret:

“Another thing to be observed is that even the constant will has its times of rise and fall, and one of the secrets of living is how to tide over the times of fall in will power.” —Charlotte Mason

Next time we will learn how to create a diversion.

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