Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Roy Baumeister John Tierney

Ended: Dec. 20, 2012

Thus was born “ego depletion,” Baumeister’s term for describing people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. People can sometimes overcome mental fatigue, but Baumeister found that if they had used up energy by exerting willpower (or by making decisions, another form of ego depletion that we’ll discuss later), they would eventually succumb.
The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons: 1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. 2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.
The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycemia, the tendency to have low blood sugar. Researchers noted that hypoglycemics were more likely than the average person to have trouble concentrating and controlling their negative emotions when provoked. Overall, they tended to be more anxious and less happy than average. Hypoglycemia was also reported to be unusually prevalent among criminals and other violent persons, and some creative defense attorneys brought the low-blood-sugar research into court.
Heatherton’s results did much more than provide additional confirmation that glucose is a vital part of willpower. They helped resolve the puzzle over how glucose could work without global changes in the brain’s total energy use. Apparently ego depletion shifts activity from one part of the brain to another. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. That may help explain why depleted people feel things more intensely than normal: Certain parts of the brain go into high gear just as others taper off.
As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat—which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands for self-control in their daily lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It’s not a simple matter of wanting all food more—they seem to be specifically hungry for sweets. In the lab, students who have just performed a self-control task eat more sweet snacks but not other (salty) snacks. Even just expecting to have to exert self-control seems to make people hungry for sweet foods. All these results don’t offer a rationale for providing sugar fixes to anyone, human or canine, outside the laboratory. The body may crave sweets as the quickest way to get energy, but low-sugar, highprotein foods and other nutritious fare work just as well (albeit more slowly). Still, the discovery of the glucose effect does point to some useful techniques for self-control. It also offers a solution to a long-standing human mystery: Why is chocolate so appealing on certain days of the month?
Feed the beast. By beast, we don’t mean Beelzebub. We mean the potential demon inside you or anyone spending time with you. Glucose depletion can turn the most charming companion into a monster. The old advice about eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly on days when you’re physically or mentally stressed. If you have a test, an important meeting, or a vital project, don’t take it on without glucose. Don’t get into an argument with your boss four hours after lunch. Don’t thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner. When you’re on a romantic trip across Europe, don’t drive into a walled medieval town at seven P.M. and try to navigate to your hotel on an empty stomach. Your car can probably survive the cobblestone maze, but your relationship might not. Above all, don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight. If you’re a smoker, don’t try quitting while you’re also on a diet. In fact, to quit you might even consider adding some calories, because part of what seems to be a craving for a cigarette may actually be a craving for food once you’re no longer suppressing your appetite with nicotine. When researchers have given sugar tablets to smokers trying to quit, sometimes the extra glucose has led to higher rates of success, particularly when the sugar tablets were combined with other therapies, like the nicotine patch. Sugar works in the lab, not in your diet. It’s a bit ironic that self-control researchers are so fond of giving sugar to experimental subjects, given how many of those people wish for the willpower to resist sweets. But the scientists are doing it just for short-term convenience. A sugar-filled drink provides a quick rise in energy that enables experimenters to observe the effects of glucose in a short period of time. Neither the researchers nor their experimental subjects want to wait around an hour for the body to digest something more complex, like protein. There might be times when you could use sugar to boost your self-control right before a brief challenge, like a math test or a track meet. If you’ve just quit smoking, you might use a sweet lozenge as an emergency stopgap against a sudden craving for a cigarette. But a sugar spike is promptly followed by a crash that leaves you feeling more depleted, so it’s not a good long-term strategy. We’re certainly not recommending that you switch from diet sodas to sugar-filled drinks, or to sweet snacks in general. It may be true, as researchers found, that drinks with sugar in them will temporarily diminish the symptoms of PMS. But outside the lab, you’re better off heeding the observation made by the singer Mary J. Blige when discussing her PMS and its attendant mood swings and shopping sprees: “Sugar makes it worse.” When you eat, go for the slow burn. The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose, but at different rates. Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high…
By asking people about their goals and then monitoring them, the researchers identified three main consequences of conflicting goals: First, you worry a lot. The more competing demands you face, the more time you spend contemplating these demands. You’re beset by rumination: repetitive thoughts that are largely involuntary and not especially pleasant. Second, you get less done. It might seem that people who think more about their goals would also take more steps to reach them, but instead they replace action with rumination. The researchers found that people with clear, unconflicting goals tended to forge ahead and make progress, but the rest were so busy worrying that they got stuck. Third, your health suffers, physically as well as mentally. In the studies, people with conflicting goals reported fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and more depression and anxiety. They had more psychosomatic complaints and symptoms. Even just plain physical sickness, measured both by the number of visits to the doctor and by the number of self-reported illnesses over the course of a year, was higher among the people with conflicting goals. The more the goals conflicted, the more the people got stuck, and the more unhappy and unhealthy they became. They paid the price for too much brooding—in the most common modern use of the word, not the one in Genesis. The old term for incubation would eventually come to be associated with mental distress, no doubt because so many people could see the same problems later measured by psychologists. A hen might brood contentedly, but humans suffer when their conflicting goals leave them sitting around doing nothing. And they can’t resolve those conflicts until they decide which kinds of goals will do them the most good.
What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed. Allen’s tickler file—thirty-one folders for each day of the current month, twelve folders for each of the months—would become so widely copied that his followers used it for the name of a popular lifehacker Web site: 43folders.com.
As Allen went on to work with his own clients, he preached the importance of the Next Action, or NA, as GTDers call it. The to-do list was not supposed to have items like “Birthday gift for Mom” or “Do taxes.” It had to specify the very next action, like “Drive to jewelry store” or “Call accountant.” “If your list has ‘Write thank-you notes,’ that’s a fine Next Action, as long as you have a pen and cards,” Allen says. “But if you don’t have the cards, you’ll know subliminally that you can’t write the notes, so you’ll avoid the list and procrastinate.” That distinction might sound easy enough to learn, but people get it wrong all the time. When Allen hears that John Tierney has been inspired by the book to install a GTD organizer on his smartphone, Allen promptly offers to bet that most of the items on the Next Action list won’t be immediately doable. Sure enough, he finds the list dominated by imperatives like “Contact mint.com researchers” or “Consult Esther Dyson about self-control”—much too vague for GTD standards. “How are you going to contact or consult them?” Allen asks. “Do you already have the phone number or e-mail address? Have you decided whether to call or e-mail? That dumb little distinction matters. Everything on that list is either attracting or repulsing you. If you say ‘Consult Esther’ because you haven’t finished thinking exactly what you’re going to do next, there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to look at the list. You’re walking around with this subliminal anxiety. But if you put down “E-mail Esther,’ you think, Oh, I can do that, and you move forward and feel you’ve finished something.”
One of the scholars, a young Russian psychology student named Bluma Zeigarnik, and her mentor, the influential thinker Kurt Lewin, pondered this experience and wondered if it pointed to a more general principle. Did the human memory make a strong distinction between finished and unfinished tasks? They began observing people who were interrupted while doing jigsaw puzzles. This research, and many studies in the following decades, confirmed what became known as the Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop. A good way to appreciate the Zeigarnik effect is to listen to a randomly chosen song and shut it off halfway through. The song is then likely to run through your mind on its own, at odd intervals. If you get to the end of the song, the mind checks it off, so to speak. If you stop it in the middle, however, the mind treats the song as unfinished business. As if to keep reminding you that there is a job to be done, the mind keeps inserting bits of the song into your stream of thought. That’s why when Bill Murray in Groundhog Day keeps shutting off “I Got You Babe” on his clock radio, the tune keeps going through our minds (and keeps driving him crazy). And that’s why this kind of ear worm is so often an awful tune rather than a pleasant one. We’re more likely to turn off the bad one in midsong, so it’s the one that returns to haunt us.
So it turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.
The problem of decision fatigue affects everything from the careers of CEOs to the prison sentences of felons appearing before weary judges. It influences the behavior of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, every day. Yet few people are even aware of it. When asked whether making decisions would deplete their willpower and make them vulnerable to temptation, most people say no. They don’t realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the car dealer’s offer to rustproof their new sedan.
Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from the fear of giving up options. The more you give up by deciding, the more you’re afraid of cutting off something vital. Some students choose double majors in college not because they’re trying to prove something or because they have some grand plan for a career integrating, say, political science and biology. Rather, they just can’t bring themselves to say no to either option. To choose a single major is to pronounce judgment on the other and kill it off, and there’s abundant research showing that people have a hard time giving up options, even when the options aren’t doing them any good. This reluctance to give up options becomes more pronounced when willpower is low. It takes willpower to make decisions, and so the depleted state makes people look for ways to postpone or evade decisions.
This form of procrastination helps explain why so many people put off the biggest choice of their lives: picking a mate. In the middle of the twentieth century, most people married by their early twenties. But then more options opened for both sexes. More men and women stayed in school longer and pursued careers that took long preparation. Thanks to the birth control pill and changing social values, people could enjoy the option of having sex without deciding to get married. As more people settled in large metropolitan areas, they had more choices in potential mates, and hence more options than ever to fear losing. For a column in 1995, Tierney did a semiscientific survey to investigate a New York phenomenon: the huge number of intelligent and attractive people who complained that it was impossible to find a romantic partner. Manhattan had the highest percentage of single people of any county in America except for an island in Hawaii originally settled as a leper colony. What was keeping New Yorkers apart? Tierney surveyed a sampling of personal ads in the city magazines of Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. He found that singles in the biggest city, New York, not only had the most choices but were also the pickiest in listing the attributes of their desired partners. The average personal ad in New York magazine listed 5.7 criteria required in a partner, significantly more than second-place Chicago’s average (4.1 criteria) and about twice the average for the other three cities. As one woman in New York put it in her ad: “Not willing to settle? Neither am I!” She claimed to be someone who “loves all NY has to offer,” but her definition of “all” did not include any male New Yorkers who were not handsome, successful, over five feet nine, and between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty-five. Another New Yorker demanded a man over five feet ten who played polo. A lawyer who listed twenty-one requisite qualities in his “princess” professed to be “astonished” to find himself unattached.
When your willpower is low, you’re less able to make these trade-offs. You become what researchers call a “cognitive miser,” hoarding your energy by avoiding compromises. You’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: Just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves us vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as was demonstrated by Jonathan Levav, the Columbia psychologist, in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars. The idea for these experiments, like Jean Twenge’s, also happened to come during the preparations for a wedding. At his fiancée’s suggestion, Levav visited a tailor to have a bespoke suit made and began going through the choices of fabric, type of lining, style of buttons, and so forth. “By the time I got through the third pile of fabric swatches, I wanted to kill myself,” Levav recalls. “I couldn’t tell the choices apart anymore. After a while my only response to the tailor became: ‘What do you recommend?’ I just couldn’t take it.” Levav ended up not buying any kind of bespoke suit (the two thousand-dollar price tag eventually made that decision easy), but he put the experience to use in a couple of experiments conducted with Mark Heitmann of Christian-Albrechts University in Germany, Andreas Hermann at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Sheena Iyengar of Columbia. One involved asking MBA students in Switzerland to choose a bespoke suit; the other was conducted at German car dealerships by discreetly observing customers ordering options for their new sedans. The car buyers—and these were real customers spending their own money—had to choose, for instance, among four styles of gearshift knobs, thirteen kinds of tires and rims, twenty-five configurations of the engine and gearbox, and a palette of fifty-six different colors for the interior of the sedan. As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in they’d start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process—like going through those fifty-six colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown for the sedan’s interior— the quicker people got fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than fifteen hundred euros per car (about two thousand dollars at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy tire rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered (early or late) and how much willpower was left in the customer. Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: Once decision fatigue set…
Apparently, the sight of an attractive woman makes men want cash right away. They focus on the present rather than the future. This effect is probably deeply rooted in the psyche and in the evolutionary past. Modern DNA research has revealed that most men in the past did not leave a line of descendants—their odds of reproducing were only half as high as the typical woman’s. (For every prolific patriarch like Genghis Khan, there were lots of other men whose genetic lines died out.) Men today are therefore descended from the minority of men who managed to reproduce, and their brains seem primed for a quick response to any opportunity to improve their reproductive odds. Other studies have shown that the sight of an attractive woman (but not an unattractive woman) activates the male brain’s nucleus accumbens, which is connected to the part of the brain activated by rewards like cash and sweet-tasting foods. In the past, there might well have been some evolutionary advantage in going for a quick display of resources upon seeing an attractive female; today, it might still be useful on occasions, especially if you think the woman’s decision might be affected by your owning a hot car. Clearly that’s the strategy of marketers of upscale cars and other goods. Advertising agencies figured out long ago that men are more likely to splurge on a luxury product if it’s shown next to a beautiful woman.
But in general, nowadays this sort of short-term thinking is not a great strategy for life—and not even for attracting resource-conscious mates. As Madonna advised in “Material Girl”: “Only boys who save their pennies/Make my rainy day.” So if you are a male about to make any important financial decisions, focus on numerical figures, not female ones. And if you are an image-conscious executive whose willpower has already been depleted by making decisions all day long, you should definitely not make any plans for the evening—or for anything longer-term—after scanning the photos at the Emperors Club VIP.
Researchers found that one of the chief effects of drinking was to reduce people’s ability to monitor their own behavior. As drinkers’ self-awareness declines, they lose self-control, so they get into more fights, smoke more, eat more, make more sexual blunders, and wake up the next day with many more regrets. One of the hardest parts of a hangover is the return of self-awareness, because that’s when we resume that crucial task for a social animal: comparing our behavior with the standards set by ourselves and our neighbors.
Esther Dyson, the famously prescient Internet guru and investor, sees the Quantified Self movement as both a smart financial investment and virtuous public policy: a revolutionary new industry that will flourish by selling what’s good for you. Instead of paying doctors and hospitals to repair your body, you can monitor yourself to avoid illness. Instead of heeding marketers’ offerings of fast foods and instant pleasures, you can set up your life so that you’re bombarded with messages promoting health and conscientiousness. “So far, marketers have been really effective at selling goods and other things that undermine our willpower,” Dyson says. “We need to apply those techniques to strengthen it.”
But other exercises do help, as demonstrated by the groups in the experiment that worked on their posture and recorded everything they ate. When they returned to the lab after two weeks, their scores on the self-control tests went up, and the improvement was significantly higher by comparison with a control group (which did no exercises of any kind during the two weeks). This was a striking result, and with careful analyses of the data, the conclusions became clearer and stronger. Unexpectedly, the best results came from the group working on posture. That tiresome old advice—“Sit up straight!”—was more useful than anyone had imagined. By overriding their habit of slouching, the students strengthened their willpower and did better at tasks that had nothing to do with posture. The improvement was most pronounced among the students who had followed the advice most diligently (as measured by the daily logs the students kept of how often they’d forced themselves to sit up or stand up straight). The experiment also revealed an important distinction in self-control between two kinds of strength: power and stamina. At the first lab session, participants began by squeezing a spring-loaded handgrip for as long as they could (which had been shown in other experiments to be a good measure of willpower, not just physical strength). Then, after expending mental energy through the classic try-not-to-think-of-a-white-bear task, they did a second handgrip task to assess how they fared when willpower was depleted. Two weeks later, when they returned to the lab after working on their posture, their scores on the initial handgrip tests didn’t show much improvement, meaning that the willpower muscle hadn’t gotten more powerful. But they had much more stamina, as evidenced by their improved performance on the subsequent handgrip test administered after the researchers tried to fatigue them. Thanks to the students’ posture exercises, their willpower didn’t get depleted as quickly as before, so they had more stamina for other tasks. You could try the two-week posture experiment to improve your own willpower, or you could try other exercises. There’s nothing magical about sitting up straight, as researchers subsequently discovered when they tested other regimens and found similar benefits. You can pick and choose from the techniques they studied, or extrapolate to create your own system. The key is to concentrate on changing a habitual behavior.
One simple way to start is by using a different hand for routine tasks. Many habits are linked to your dominant hand. Right-handed people, in particular, tend to use their right hands for all sorts of things without giving the matter the slightest thought. Making yourself switch to your left hand is thus an exercise in self-control. You can resolve to use your left hand instead of your habitual right hand for brushing your teeth, using a computer mouse, opening doors, or lifting a cup to your lips. If it seems too onerous to do this all day, try it for a set period. Some research studies have assigned people to switch hands between eight A.M. and eight P.M. This lets people revert to their familiar habits in the evening, when they are already physically tired and mentally depleted from the day’s activities. (Note to lefties: This strategy may not be as effective for you, because many left-handed people are actually fairly ambidextrous and have had more practice using their right hands in a world oriented for right-handed people. So using your right hand may not do as much for your willpower: No strain, no gain.) Another training strategy is to change your speech habits, which are also deeply ingrained and therefore require effort to modify. You could, for instance, try speaking only in complete sentences. Break the adolescent habit of peppering your discourse with “like” and “you know” constantly. Avoid abbreviations, so that you always call everything by its full name. Say “yes” and “no” instead of “yeah” or “yup,” “nah” or “nope.” You could also try avoiding those traditionally taboo words: curses. Today this taboo strikes many people as outdated, maybe even nonsensical: Why should society produce a set of words that everybody knows but nobody is allowed to say out loud? But the value of having forbidden words may lie precisely in the exercise of resisting the impulse to say them.
Even allowing for the fevers and insane visions, it’s hard to imagine that Stanley really believed he or his note had any sway over death. But the act of writing it was part of a strategy to conserve willpower that he used over and over with great success: precommitment. The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path. Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens. His men used a different form of precommitment by plugging their ears so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ songs. They prevented themselves from being tempted at all, which is generally the safer of the two approaches. If you want to be sure you don’t gamble at a casino, you’re better off staying out of it rather than strolling past the tables and counting on your friends to stop you from placing a bet. Better yet is to put your name on the list of people (maintained by casinos in some states) who are not allowed to collect any money if they place winning bets.
Now, you might think the energy spent shaving in the jungle would be better devoted to looking for food. Wouldn’t that exercise of self-control leave you more depleted and less able to exert willpower for something vital? But orderly habits like that can actually improve self-control in the long run by triggering automatic mental processes that don’t require much energy. Stanley’s belief in the link between external order and inner self-discipline has been confirmed recently in some remarkable studies. In one experiment, a group of participants answered questions sitting in a nice neat laboratory room, while others sat in the kind of place that inspires parents to shout, “Clean up your room!” The people in the messy room scored lower in self-control on many measures, such as being unwilling to wait a week for a larger sum of money as opposed to taking a smaller sum right away. When offered snacks and drinks, people in the neat lab room chose apples and milk instead of the candy and sugary colas preferred by their peers in the pigsty. In a similar experiment conducted online, some participants answered questions on a clean, well-designed Web site on which everything was correctly positioned and properly spelled. Others were asked the same questions on a sloppy Web site with spelling errors and other problems. On the messy site, people were more likely to say that they would gamble rather than take a sure thing, that they would curse and swear, and that they would take an immediate but small reward rather than waiting for a larger but delayed reward. The messy Web site also elicited lower donations to charity. Charity and generosity have been linked to self-control, partly because self-control is needed to overcome our natural animal selfishness, and partly because, as we’ll see later, thinking about others can increase our own self-discipline. The orderly Web sites, like the neat lab rooms, provided subtle cues guiding people unconsciously toward self-disciplined decisions and actions helping others. By shaving every day, Stanley could benefit from this same sort of orderly cue without having to expend much mental energy. He didn’t have to make a conscious decision every morning to shave. Once he had expended the willpower to make it his custom, it became a relatively automatic mental process requiring little or no further willpower. His dutiful behavior at Starvation Camp was extreme, but it fits a pattern recently observed by Baumeister working together with Denise de Ridder and Catrin Finkenauer, two Dutch researchers who led an analysis of a large set of published and unpublished studies on people who scored high in self-control as measured in a personality test. These studies reported experiments involving a variety of behaviors, which the researchers divided into a couple of broad categories: mainly automatic or mainly controlled. The researchers assumed, logically enough, that people with high self-control would tend to exercise it most…
Among university professors, for example, getting tenure is a major hurdle and milestone, and at most universities tenure depends heavily on having published some high-quality, original work. One researcher, Bob Boice, looked into the writing habits of young professors just starting out and tracked them to see how they fared. Not surprisingly, in a job where there is no real boss and no one sets schedules or tells you what to do, these young professors took a variety of approaches. Some would collect information until they were ready and then write a manuscript in a burst of intense energy, over perhaps a week or two, possibly including some long days and very late nights. Others plodded along at a steadier pace, trying to write a page or two every day. Others were in between. When Boice followed up on the group some years later, he found that their paths had diverged sharply. The page-a-day folks had done well and generally gotten tenure. The so-called “binge writers” fared far less well, and many had had their careers cut short. The clear implication was that the best advice for young writers and aspiring professors is: Write every day. Use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run.
As Stanley realized, self-control is not selfish. Willpower enables us to get along with others and override impulses that are based on personal short-term interests. It’s the same lesson that Navy SEAL commandos learn during a modern version of Stanley’s ordeals: the famous Hell Week test of continual running, swimming, crawling, and shivering that they must endure on less than five hours’ sleep. At least three-quarters of the men in each SEAL class typically fail to complete training, and the survivors aren’t necessarily the ones with the most muscles, according to Eric Greitens, a SEAL officer. In recalling the fellow survivors of his Hell Week, he points out their one common quality: “They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.”
Contrary to popular stereotype, alcohol doesn’t increase your impulse to do stupid or destructive things; instead, it simply removes restraints. It lessens self-control in two ways: by lowering blood glucose and by reducing self-awareness. Therefore, it mainly affects behaviors marked by inner conflict, as when part of you wants to do something and part of you does not, like having sex with the wrong person, spending too much money, getting into a fight—or ordering another drink, and then another. This is the sort of inner conflict that cartoonists used to illustrate with the good angel on one shoulder and the bad angel on the other, but it’s not much of a contest after a few drinks. The good angel is out of commission. You need to intervene earlier, to stop the binge before it begins,
Social support is a peculiar force and can operate in two different ways. Plenty of research suggests that being alone in the world is stressful. Loners and lonely people tend to have more of just about every kind of mental and physical illness than people who live in rich social networks. Some of that is because people with mental and physical problems make fewer friends, and indeed, some potential friends may shy away from someone who seems maladjusted. But simply being alone or lonely leads to problems also. A lack of friends tends to contribute to alcohol and drug abuse.
But the act of telling a story forces you to organize your thoughts, monitor your behavior, and discuss goals for the future. A personal goal can seem more real once you speak it out loud, particularly if you know the audience will be monitoring you. A recent study of people undergoing cognitive therapy found that resolutions were more likely to be kept if they were made in the presence of other people, especially a romantic partner. Apparently, promising your therapist that you will cut down on drinking is not a powerful boost to self-control, but promising your spouse makes a big difference. Your spouse, after all, is the one who’s going to smell your breath.
McCullough, who suggests that prayers and meditation rituals are “a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”
McCullough concludes that the believers’ self-control comes not merely from a fear of God’s wrath but from the system of values they’ve absorbed, which gives their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He advises agnostics to look for their own set of hallowed values. That might be a devout commitment to helping others, the way that Henry Stanley made it his “sacred task” in Africa to end the slave trade. It might be a commitment to improve others’ health, or spread humane values, or preserve the environment for future generations. It’s probably no coincidence that environmentalism is especially strong in rich countries where traditional religion has waned. The devotion to God seems to give way to a reverence for nature’s beauty and transcendence. Environmentalists’ exhortations to reduce consumption and waste are teaching children some of the same self-control lessons offered in religious sermons and Victorian primers. Secular greens seem to be instinctively replacing one form of self-discipline with another, and one kind of rules with another: organic instead of kosher, sustainability instead of salvation.
That’s the result of hyperbolic discounting: We can ignore temptations when they’re not immediately available, but once they’re right in front of us we lose perspective and forget our distant goals. George Ainslie, a renowned psychiatrist and behavioral economist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, worked out the mathematics of this foible by using some clever variations of the familiar experiments testing long-term and short-term rewards. For instance, if you won a lottery with a choice of prizes, would you prefer $100 to be paid six years from today, or $200 to be paid nine years from today? Most people will choose the $200. But what if the choice were between $100 today and $200 three years from today? A rational discounter would apply the same logic and conclude once again that the extra money is worth the wait, but most people will instead demand the quick $100. Our judgment is so distorted by the temptation of immediate cash that we irrationally devalue the future prize. Ainslie found that as we approach a short-term temptation, our tendency to discount the future follows the steep curve of a hyperbola, which is why this tendency is called hyperbolic discounting. As you devalue the future (like those heroin addicts in Vermont who couldn’t think beyond the next hour), you lose your concern about a hangover tomorrow, and you’re not focused on your vow to go through the rest of your life sober. Those future benefits now seem trivial in relation to the immediate pleasure at the pub. What’s the harm in stopping by for one drink?
He needs the help of “bright lines,” a term that Ainslie borrows from lawyers. These are clear, simple, unambiguous rules. You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime. It’s not practical for all self-control problems—a dieter cannot stop eating all food—but it works well in many situations. Once you’re committed to following a bright-line rule, your present self can feel confident that your future self will observe it, too. And if you believe that the rule is sacred—a commandment from God, the unquestionable law of a higher power—then it becomes an especially bright line. You have more reason to expect your future self to respect it, and therefore your belief becomes a form of self-control: a self-fulfilling mandate. I think I won’t, therefore I don’t.
The review panel also concluded that high self-esteem generally does not make people more effective or easier to get along with. People with high self-esteem think they’re more popular, charming, and socially skilled than other people, but objective studies find no difference. Their self-esteem generally does not lead to better performance at school or at work, and it does not help prevent cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug use, or early sexual behavior. While there may be a correlation between low self-esteem and problems like drug addiction and teenage pregnancy, that doesn’t mean that low self-esteem causes these problems. It works the other way: Being a sixteen-year-old pregnant heroin addict can make you feel less than wonderful about yourself. There seem to be only two clearly demonstrated benefits of high self-esteem, according to the review panel. First, it increases initiative, probably because it lends confidence. People with high self-esteem are more willing to act on their beliefs, to stand up for what they believe in, to approach others, to risk new undertakings. (This unfortunately includes being extra willing to do stupid or destructive things, even when everyone else advises against them.) Second, it feels good. High self-esteem seems to operate like a bank of positive emotions, which furnish a general sense of well-being and can be useful when you need an extra dose of confidence to cope with misfortune, ward off depression, or bounce back from failure. These benefits might be useful to people in some jobs, like sales, by enabling them to recover from frequent rejections, but this sort of persistence is a mixed blessing. It can also lead people to ignore sensible advice as they stubbornly keep wasting time and money on hopeless causes. On the whole, benefits of high self-esteem accrue to the self while its costs are borne by others, who must deal with side effects like arrogance and conceit. At worst, self-esteem becomes narcissism, the self-absorbed conviction of personal superiority. Narcissists are legends in their own mind and addicted to their grandiose images. They have a deep craving to be admired by other people (but don’t feel a special need to be liked—it’s adulation they require). They expect to be treated as special beings and will turn nasty when criticized. They tend to make very good first impressions but don’t wear well. When the psychologist Delroy Paulhus asked people in groups to rate one another, the narcissists seemed to be everyone’s favorite person, but only during the first few meetings. After a few months, they usually slipped to the bottom of the rankings. God’s gift to the world can be hard to live with.
By most measures in psychological studies, narcissism has increased sharply in recent decades, especially among young Americans. College professors often complain that students now feel entitled to high grades without having to study; employers report problems with young workers who expect a quick rise to the top without paying their dues. This trend toward narcissim is even apparent in song lyrics over the past three decades, as a team of researchers led by Nathan DeWall demonstrated in a clever study showing that words like “I” and “me” have become increasingly common in hit songs. Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” has been taken to another level by musicians like Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of Weezer, who wrote and performed a popular song in 2008 titled “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived.” It was autobiographical. This broad rise in narcissism is the problem child of the self-esteem movement, and it is not likely to change anytime soon, because the movement persists despite the evidence that it’s not making children become more successful, honest, or otherwise better citizens. Too many students, parents, and educators are still seduced by the easy promises of self-esteem. Like the students in Forsyth’s class in Virginia, when the going gets tough, people with high self-esteem often decide they shouldn’t bother. If other people can’t appreciate how terrific they are, then it’s the other people’s problem.
There’s one notable exception to the trend toward narcissism observed in psychological studies of young Americans. It doesn’t appear among young Asian-Americans, probably because their parents have been influenced less by the self-esteem movement than by a cultural tradition of instilling discipline. Some Asian cultures put considerably more emphasis on promoting self-control, and from earlier ages, than is common in America and other Western societies. Chinese parents and preschools pressure children quite early in life to become toilet trained and acquire other basic forms of impulse control. By one…
Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised two daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as the coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents’ techniques for fostering achievement. They tell how their parents started teaching them the alphabet before their second birthday, and how their mother was never one to reward a child whining for candy at the supermarket. When they reached the checkout counter, before the girls had a chance to beg, Mrs. Kim would preempt them by announcing that if they each read a book the following week, she would buy them a candy bar on the next shopping trip. Later, when Soo went off to college and asked her parents for a cheap used car to get around, they refused but offered to buy her a brand-new car if she was admitted to medical school. Thus, these parents did provide good things for their daughters—but each treat was meted out as a reward for some valued achievement. The many Asian-American success stories have forced developmental psychologists to revise their theories about proper parenting. They used to warn against the “authoritarian” style, in which parents set rigid goals and enforced strict rules without much overt concern for the child’s feelings. Parents were advised to adopt a different style, called “authoritative,” in which they still set limits but gave more autonomy and paid more attention to the child’s desires. This warmer, more nurturing style was supposed to produce well-adjusted, selfconfident children who would do better academically and socially than those from authoritarian homes. But then, as Ruth Chao and other psychologists studied Asian-American families, they noticed that many of the parents set quite strict rules and goals. These immigrants, and often their children, too, considered their style of parenting to be a form of devotion, not oppression. Chinese-American parents were determined to instill self-control by following the Confucian concepts of chiao shun, which means “to train,” and guan, which means both “to govern” and “to love.” These parents might have seemed cold and rigid by American standards, but their children were flourishing both in and out of school.
Chua’s version of parenting—no sleepovers, no playdates—is too extreme for our tastes, particularly the three-hour violin lessons. But we admire her insight into the problems with the self-esteem movement: “As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks—drawing a squiggle or waving a stick—I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.” Chua’s basic strategies—set clear goals, enforce rules, punish failure, reward excellence—aren’t all that different from the ones being imparted to American homes on Nanny 911 by Deborah Carroll, the member of the “team of world-class nannies” who gets assigned to the truly hard cases, like the Paul family portrayed in that “Little House of Horrors” episode. In her dealings with American children, Carroll says, she’s simply applying the lessons of her own youth in Wales.
Whether you’re giving a time-out to a toddler or revoking a teenager’s driving privileges, there are three basic facets of punishment: severity, speed, and consistency. Many people associate strict discipline with severe penalties, but that’s actually the least important facet. Researchers have found that severity seems to matter remarkably little and can even be counterproductive: Instead of encouraging virtue, harsh punishments teach the child that life is cruel and that aggression is appropriate. The speed of the punishment is much more important, as researchers have found in working with children as well as with animals. For lab rats to learn from their mistakes, the punishment generally has to occur almost immediately, preferably within a second of the misbehavior. Punishment doesn’t have to be that quick with children, but the longer the delay, the more chance that they’ll have forgotten the infraction and the mental processes that led to it. By far the most important facet of punishment—and the most difficult one for parents—is consistency. Ideally, a parent should quickly discipline the child every single time he or she misbehaves, but in a restrained, even mild manner. A stern word or two is often enough as long as it’s done carefully and regularly. This approach can initially be more of a strain on the parents than on the child. They’re tempted to overlook or forgive some misdeed, if only because they’re tired or because it may spoil the pleasant time everyone else is having. Parents may rationalize that they want to be kind; they may even tell each other to be nice and let this one go. But the more vigilant they are early on, the less effort is required in the long run. Consistent discipline tends to produce well-behaved children.
Long before children can read rules or do chores, they can start learning self-control. Ask any parent who has survived the ordeal of Ferberization, which is based on a technique found in a Victorian child-rearing manual. It requires the parents, against all instinct, to ignore their infants’ cries when they’re left alone at bedtime. Instead of rushing to the infant’s side, the parents let the infant cry for a fixed interval of time, then go offer some comfort, then withdraw for another fixed interval. The process is repeated until the child learns to control the crying and go to sleep without any help from the parents. It requires great self-control by the parents to ignore the heart-rending screams, but the infants usually learn quickly to put themselves to sleep without any crying. Once an infant acquires this self-control, everyone wins: The infant is no longer anxious at bedtime or when he or she wakes up alone in the middle of the night, and the parents don’t have to spend their nights hovering by the crib. We’ve seen parents successfully use a variant of this approach when an infant cries to be fed. Instead of immediately feeding the crying child, the mother lets the child know that the signal has been received but then waits for her or him to quiet down before offering the breast or the bottle. Again, it’s hard to ignore the cries at first, and we realize that to some parents it sounds too cruel to even try. But once a child learns to ask for food without going into a crying frenzy, both child and parent end up calmer and happier. The children are learning that they have some power over themselves, that certain kinds of behavior are expected, and that actions have consequences—lessons that will become more and more important as they get older.
Some parents like to offer cash for good grades; others balk at paying for what children are supposed to be doing anyway. The most compelling argument against these payments is based on what psychologists call the overjustification effect: Rewards turn play into work. More precisely, studies have shown that when people are paid to do things that they like to do, they start to regard the task as paid drudgery. By that logic, wouldn’t paying for grades undermine children’s intrinsic love of learning? We’re not convinced by that argument. In the first place, grades are already extrinsic rewards, so inserting money into the arrangement does not change any relevance of the overjustification effect to any intrinsic love of learning. Second, performing well for money is a fact of adult life, so getting money for grades is a reasonable preparation for it. That would apply even if it were true that children who get money for grades somehow lose a little of their personal passion for learning. (Frankly, as much as we’ve enjoyed the research in our own careers, we wonder if love of learning is overrated as a motivational tool.) Money symbolizes value, and using it to pay for grades conveys to children the high value that society, and the family, places on school, particularly if the money is reserved for outstanding achievement.
The more that children are being monitored, the more opportunities they have to build their self-control. Parents can guide them through the kind of willpower-strengthening exercises we’ve discussed earlier, like taking care to sit up straight, to always speak grammatically, to avoid starting sentences with “I,” and to never say “yeah” for “yes.” Anything that forces children to exercise their self-control muscle can be helpful: taking music lessons, memorizing poems, saying prayers, minding their table manners, avoiding the use of profanity, writing thank-you notes.
As they strengthen their willpower, children also need to learn when not to rely on it. In Mischel’s marshmallow experiments near Stanford, many children tried to resist temptation by staring right at the marshmallow and willing themselves to be strong. It didn’t work. Staring at the forbidden marshmallow kept reminding them of its allure, and as soon as willpower slackened for a moment, they gave in and ate it. By contrast, the children who managed to hold out—who waited fifteen minutes in order to get two marshmallows—typically succeeded by distracting themselves. They covered their eyes, turned their backs, fiddled with their shoelaces. That marshmallow experiment caused some researchers to conclude that controlling attention is what matters, not building willpower, but we disagree. Yes, controlling attention is important. But you need willpower to control attention.
Instead of bemoaning the games’ hold over children, we should be exploiting the techniques that game designers have developed. They’ve refined the basic steps of self-control: setting clear and attainable goals, giving instantaneous feedback, and offering enough encouragement for people to keep practicing and improving. After noticing how hard people work at games, some pioneers are pursuing the “gamification” of life by adapting these techniques (like establishing “quests” and allowing people to “level up”) for schools and workplaces and digital collaborations. Video games give new glamour to old-fashioned virtues. Success is conditional—but it’s within your reach as long as you have the discipline to try, try again.
If these yearnings seem overpowering, we can suggest a couple of defensive strategies. The first is to use the postponed-pleasure ploy: Tell yourself that you can have a small sweet dessert later if you still want it. (We’ll discuss this ploy later, too.) Meanwhile, eat something else. Remember, your body is craving energy because it has used up some of its supply with self-control. The body feels a desire for sweet foods, but that is only because that is a familiar and effective way to restore energy. Healthy foods will also provide the energy it needs. It’s not what’s on your mind, but it should do the trick. Remember, too, that the depleted state makes you feel everything more intensely than usual. Desires and cravings are exceptionally intense to the depleted person. Dieting is a frequent drain on your willpower, and so the dieter will frequently be in a depleted state. That will, in effect, turn up the volume on many good and bad things that happen throughout the day. It will also make longings—yes, unfortunately, even the longings for food, which are already there—seem especially intense. This may help explain why, eventually, many dieters seem to cultivate a numbness to their body’s wants and feelings about food.
A simple commitment strategy for avoiding late-night snacking is to brush your teeth early in the evening, while you’re still full from dinner and before the late-night-snacking temptation sets in. Although it won’t physically prevent you from eating, brushing your teeth is such an ingrained pre-bedtime habit that it unconsciously cues you not to eat anymore. On a conscious level, moreover, it makes snacking seem less attractive: You have to balance your greedy impulse for sugar against your lazy impulse to avoid having to brush your teeth again. You
So before you get tempted by the food at a party, you can prepare yourself with a plan like: If they serve chips, I will refuse them all. Or: If there is a buffet, I will eat only vegetables and lean meat. It’s a simple but surprisingly effective way to gain self-control. By making the decision to pass up the chips an automatic process, you can do it fairly effortlessly even late in the day, when your supply of willpower is low. And because it’s relatively effortless, you can pass up the chips and still have enough willpower to deal with the next temptation at the party.
Peer pressure helps explain why people in Europe weigh less than Americans: They follow different social norms, like eating only at mealtimes instead of snacking throughout the day. When European social scientists come to the United States to study eating habits in campus laboratories, they’re surprised to discover that they can run experiments whenever they want to because American college students are happy to eat food any time of the morning or afternoon. In France or Italy, it can be hard to find a restaurant open except at mealtimes. Those social norms produce habits that conserve willpower through automatic mental processes. Instead of consciously trying to decide whether to snack, instead of struggling with temptation, Europeans rely on the equivalent of an implementation plan: If it’s four P.M., then I won’t eat anything.
The people who weighed themselves every day were much more successful at keeping their weight from creeping back up. They were less likely to go on eating binges, and they didn’t show any signs of disillusion or other distress from their daily confrontation with the scale. For all the peculiar challenges to losing weight, one of the usual strategies is still effective: The more carefully and frequently you monitor yourself, the better you’ll control yourself. If it seems like too much of a chore to write down your weight every day, you can outsource some of the drudgery by using a scale that keeps an electronic record of your weight. Some models will transmit each day’s reading to your computer or smartphone, which can then produce a chart for your monitoring pleasure (or displeasure).
Besides monitoring your body, you can monitor what food you put into it. If you conscientiously keep a record of all the food you eat, you’ll probably consume fewer calories. In one study, those who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who used other techniques. It also helps to record how many calories are in the food, although that’s notoriously tricky to estimate. All of us, even professional dietitians, tend to underestimate how much food is on a plate, especially when confronted with large portions. We’ve been further confused by the warnings of nutritionists and the tricks of food companies, who will use a label like “low-fat” or “organic” to create what researchers call a “health halo.”
The two most common activities that are combined with eating are socializing and watching television—and both are associated with increased calorie consumption. Researchers have repeatedly shown that eating in front of the television increases snacking, and that viewers will eat more when their attention is engaged—as in a well-executed comedy or horror film—than when they’re watching something boring. In one study, female dieters tripled the amount of food they ate when they were absorbed in a film.
The result suggests that telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree—and can be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat. During that final part of the experiment, when all the people were left alone with a bowl of M&M’s, the ones who’d postponed pleasure ate even less than the people who had earlier allowed themselves to eat the candy at will. Moreover, the suppression effect seemed to last outside the laboratory. The day after the experiment, all the people were sent an e-mail with a question: “How much do you desire M&M candies at this very moment, if someone offered them to you?” Those who had postponed gratification reported less desire to eat the candy than either the people who had refused the pleasure outright or those who had eaten their fill. It takes willpower to turn down dessert, but apparently it’s less stressful on the mind to say Later rather than Never. In the long run, you end up wanting less and also consuming less. Plus, you may derive more pleasure because of another effect that was demonstrated in a different sort of experiment: asking people how much they’d be willing to pay to kiss their favorite movie star today, and how much they’d pay for a kiss three days from now. Ordinarily, people will pay more for an immediate pleasure, but in this case they were willing to spend extra money to postpone the kiss, because it would let them spend three days savoring the prospect. Similarly, delaying the gratification of crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake gives time to enjoy the anticipation. As a result of that advance pleasure, when you ultimately do indulge, you may find less of a need to binge and more of an inclination to eat moderately. In contrast, when you swear off something altogether and then finally give in, you say, What the hell, and gorge yourself.
You could sum up a large new body of research literature with a simple rule: The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up. That means setting up your life so that you have a realistic chance to succeed. Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy, as Baumeister and his colleagues have observed recently on both sides of the Atlantic. When they monitored Germans throughout the day (in the beeper study we mentioned earlier), the researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did. At first Baumeister and his German collaborators were puzzled. 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. This explanation jibed with the conclusion of another study, by Dutch researchers working with Baumeister, showing that people with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work. The results of these habits and routines were demonstrated in yet another recent set of studies, in the United States, showing that people with high self-control consistently report less stress in their lives. 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 defense.
The trait that does seem to matter is impulsiveness, which shows up over and over in studies of procrastinators. This connection helps explain recent evidence that procrastination is more of a problem for men than it is for women, and especially for young men: Men have more hard-to-control impulses. When procrastinators are feeling anxious about a difficult job, or just bored by a mundane chore, they give in to the urge to improve their mood by doing something else. They go for the immediate reward, playing a video game instead of cleaning the kitchen or writing a term paper, and they try to ignore the long-term consequences. When thoughts of future deadlines intrude, they may even try telling themselves that it’s smart to wait until the last minute: I work best under deadline pressure! But mostly they’re kidding themselves, as Baumeister and Dianne Tice discovered.
No matter what you want to achieve, playing offense begins by recognizing the two basic lessons from chapter 1: Your supply of willpower is limited, and you use the same resource for many different things. Each day may start off with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, at least if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. But then all day things chip and nibble away at it. The complexity of modern life makes it difficult to keep in mind that all these seemingly unrelated chores and demands draw on the same account inside of you. Consider some of the things that happen in a typical day. You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep. You put up with traffic frustrations. You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you, or when a store clerk says “Just one second” and takes six minutes to get back to you. You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting. You postpone going to the bathroom. You make yourself take the first steps on a difficult project. You want to eat all the French fries on your lunch plate but you leave half of them there, or (after negotiating with yourself) almost half. You push yourself to go jogging, and while you jog you make yourself keep running until you finish your workout. The willpower you expended on each of these unrelated events depletes how much you have left for the others. This depletion isn’t intuitively obvious, especially when it comes to appreciating the impact of making decisions. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Choosing what to have for dinner, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend—these all take willpower. Even hypothetical decisions deplete energy. After making some tough decisions, remember that your self-control is going to be weakened. Remember, too, that what matters is the exertion, not the outcome. If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you’re still depleted because you struggled. Giving in does not replenish the willpower you have already expended. All it does is save you from expending any more. You may have spent the day succumbing to a series of temptations and impulses, but you could nonetheless have used up quite a bit of energy by resisting each one for a while. You can even use up willpower by partaking in indulgences that don’t appeal to you. Forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do at the moment—chug tequila, have sex, smoke a cigar—will leave you with less willpower. Similarly, the most tiring decisions are the ones that seem tough to you even though they may seem obvious to others. Your rational self might be fully convinced that you should rent the affordable apartment with the extra room, but it can still deplete you to pass up the impractical one with the spectacular view.
There’s no obvious “feeling” of depletion. Hence you need to watch yourself for subtle, easily misinterpreted signs. Do things seem to bother you more than they should? Has the volume somehow been turned up on your life so that things are felt more strongly than usual? Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things? Are you more than usually reluctant to make a decision or exert yourself mentally or physically? If you notice such feelings, then reflect on the last few hours and see if it seems likely that you have depleted your willpower. If so, try to conserve what’s left while anticipating the effects on your behavior. While you’re depleted, frustrations will bother you more than usual. You’ll be more prone to say something you’ll regret. Impulses to eat, drink, spend, or do other things will be harder than usual to resist. As we said earlier, the best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up, but when you’re depleted you’re liable to make mistakes that will leave you with more bills to pay, more relationship damage to repair, more pounds to lose. Beware of making binding decisions when your energy is down, because you’ll tend to favor options with short-term gains and delayed costs. Try to compensate by assigning extra weight to the long-range consequences of the decision. To avoid succumbing to irrational biases and lazy shortcuts, articulate your reasons for your decision and consider whether they make sense.
Eat first. Lab researchers replenish this basic fuel by giving sugar-filled drinks because they work quickly, but it’s better to use protein. Get some healthy food into your body, wait half an hour, and then the decision won’t seem so overwhelming.
You can’t control or even predict the stresses that come into your life, but you can use the calm periods, or at least the peaceful moments, to plan an offense. Start an exercise program. Learn a new skill. Quit smoking, reduce drinking, make one or two lasting changes toward a healthy diet. These are all best done during times of relatively low demand, when you can allocate much of your willpower to the task. You can then sensibly pick your battles—and sensibly figure out which ones are too much trouble. Even someone with David Blaine’s iron will and astonishing tolerance for pain knows his limits. When we told him about Stanley’s treks through the jungle, he recoiled upon hearing about the constant swarms of mosquitoes and other bugs.
When you pick your battles, look beyond the immediate challenges and put your life in perspective. Are you where you want to be? What could be better? What can you do about it? You can’t do this every day, of course, and certainly not during busy, stressful times, but you can set aside at least one day a year—maybe your birthday—to do some reflection and write down notes on how well you spent the previous year. If you make this an annual ritual, you can look back over the notes from previous years to see what kinds of progress you’ve made in the past: which goals were met, which goals remain, which ones are hopeless. You should always have at least a vague five-year objective along with more specific intermediate goals, like the monthly plans that we discussed in chapter 3. Have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a month and how to get there. Leave some flexibility and anticipate setbacks. When you check your progress at month’s end, remember that you don’t have to meet each goal every time—what matters is that your life gradually improves from month to month.
“We simply ask our managers and other workers to set their top goals for the week,” Patzer says. “You can’t have more than three goals, and it’s fine if you have less than three. Each week we go over what we did last week and whether we met those goals or not, and then each person sets the top three goals for this week. If you only get goals one and two done, but not three, that’s fine, but you can’t go off working on other goals until you’ve done the top three. That’s it—that’s how we manage. It’s simple, but it forces you to prioritize, and it’s rigorous.”
Another simple old-fashioned way to boost your willpower is to expend a little of it on neatness. As we described in chapter 7, people exert less self-control after seeing a messy desk than after seeing a clean desk, or when using a sloppy rather than a neat and wellorganized Web site. You may not care about whether your bed is made and your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. Order seems to be contagious.
Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories. “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically every morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.” This Nothing Alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task. Although your work may not be as solitary and clearly defined as Chandler’s, you can still benefit by setting aside time to do one and only one thing. You might, for instance, resolve to start your day with ninety minutes devoted to your most important goal, with no interruptions from e-mail or phone calls, no side excursions anywhere on the Web. Just follow Chandler’s regimen: “Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”
Precommitment is the ultimate offensive weapon. Buy junk food in small packages or keep them out of the kitchen altogether. Plan meals by the week, rather than on the spur of the moment when it’s already past dinnertime and you’re starving. If you’re planning to have a child, set up an automatic payroll deduction plan to build up a nest egg of ten thousand dollars so you’re not stressed out by money during those first sleepdeprived months of parenthood. If you have a gambling problem and are going someplace where there’s a casino, sign up ahead of time for the self-exclusion list (which will prevent you from collecting any winnings). To precommit to the Nothing Alternative, use a software program (like the one named Freedom) that locks you off the Internet for a set period. Precommitment helps you avoid the hot-cold empathy gap we discussed earlier: the common failure to appreciate, in moments of cool deliberation, how different you’ll feel in the heat of later moments. One of the most common reasons for the self-control problem is overconfidence in willpower. In one recent study, smokers were invited to bet that they could hold an unlit cigarette in their mouths while watching a movie without succumbing to the temptation to smoke. Plenty took the bet, and they lost. Better to precommit by leaving the cigarette somewhere else.
Monitoring is crucial for any kind of plan you make—and it can even work if you don’t make a plan at all. Weighing yourself every day or keeping a food diary can help you lose weight, just as tracking your purchases will help you spend less. Even a writer who doesn’t share Trollope’s ability to meet daily quota can still benefit just by noting the word count at the beginning and end of the day: The mere knowledge that you’ll have to put down a number will discourage procrastination (or the kind of busywork that might feel virtuous but doesn’t contribute to that word count). The more carefully you keep track, the better. Weighing yourself every week is good. Weighing yourself every day is better. Weighing yourself and recording it is even better.
Entrepreneurs are rushing to monitor just about every aspect of your life—your health, your moods, your sleep—and you can find dozens of their products by consulting Web sites like Quantified Self and Lifehacker.
When you set a goal, set a reward for reaching it—and then don’t stiff yourself. If you just use willpower to deny yourself things, it becomes a grim, thankless form of defense. But when you use it to gain something, you can wring pleasure out of the dreariest tasks. We’ve criticized the everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy of the self-esteem movement, but trophies for genuine accomplishments are fine. As we saw in the chapter on parenting, the most successful strategies for promoting self-control involve rewards, whether they’re being offered by British nannies, Asian-American mothers, or computer-game designers. Young people who seem hopelessly undisciplined in school or on the job will concentrate for hour after hour on games that involve the same skills needed for more productive work at the computer: Look at information on a screen, balance short-term and long-term goals, make a choice, and click. The computer-game industry’s astounding growth—by age twenty-one, the typical American has spent ten thousand hours playing computer games—occurred because its designers had an unprecedented opportunity to observe people’s responses to incentives.
Online games became essentially the largest experiment ever conducted into motivational strategies. By getting instant feedback from millions of online players, the game designers learned precisely which incentives work: a mix of frequent small prizes with occasional big ones. Even when players lose battles or make mistakes or die, they remain motivated because of the emphasis on rewards rather than punishment. Instead of feeling as if they’ve failed, the players think that they just haven’t succeeded yet. That’s the feeling we should aim for in the real world, and we can do it by steadily rewarding ourselves for successes along the way. Achieving a big goal, like quitting smoking for a year, deserves a big reward—at the very least, use the money you would have spent on cigarettes for some extraordinary indulgence, like a meal at a hideously expensive restaurant. But it’s just as important to have lots of little rewards for little feats. Never underestimate how little it takes to motivate. How do you get people to devote a full two minutes to brushing their teeth and gums? Sell them an electric toothbrush that displays a smiley face after two minutes of brushing, as some of Braun’s models do. Dopey drawings may not work for you, but something else will. Esther Dyson likes to tell how, after years of failing to floss regularly, she finally hit on the proper incentive. As we mentioned earlier, she was quite disciplined in most other parts of her life, including forcing herself every day to do an hour of swimming. One evening she had an epiphany: “If I floss my teeth tonight, I’ll let myself take five minutes off the swimming tomorrow. That was four years ago, and I’ve flossed just about every night since. It’s incredibly silly but amazingly effective. Everybody needs to find their own little thing. It’s got to be a reward that’s relevant.”
The point of self-control isn’t simply to be more “productive.” People today don’t have to work as hard as Ben Franklin and the Victorians did. In the nineteenth century, the typical worker had barely an hour of free time per day and didn’t even think about retiring. Today we spend only about a fifth of our adult waking hours on the job. The remaining time is an astonishing gift—an unprecedented blessing in human history—but it takes an unprecedented type of self-control to enjoy it. Too many of us tend to procrastinate even when it comes to pleasure because we succumb to the planning fallacy when we estimate “resource slack,” as behavioral economists term it. We assume we’ll magically have more free time in the future than we do today. So we say yes to a work commitment three months from now that we’d never accept if it were next week—and then discover too late that we still don’t have any time for it. Researchers term this the “Yes . . . Damn!” effect. And we keep putting off present pleasures, like visiting the zoo or getting away for the weekend. There’s so much of this procrastination that airlines and other marketers save billions of dollars annually from frequent flyer miles and gift certificates that go unredeemed. Like pathological tightwads who end up with saver’s remorse, procrastinators of pleasure wind up regretting the trips not taken and the fun forgone. Whether you’re working or playing, you’ll find more happiness and less stress by going on offense. Your ideal of paradise might be three weeks of doing nothing on a tropical island, but you can’t get there without making plans in advance—and maybe, in the case of workaholics, establishing some bright-line rules against working in paradise.
Self-control is ultimately about much more than self-help. It’s essential for savoring your time on earth and sharing joy with the people you love. Of all the benefits that have been demonstrated in Baumeister’s experiments, one of the most heartening is this: People with stronger willpower are more altruistic. They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go. Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today. Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.