Dear colleagues,

Willpower provides the capacity to overcome immediate temptations. It can come in handy when writing an article, marking essays, exercising or losing weight. Yet think about how common it is for students to wait until the last moment to do assignments and how hard it is for most people to lose weight. There seems to be a willpower deficit.

Psychologists have been doing ingenious experiments to learn about willpower. One of the surprising findings is that willpower can be used up, a process called ego depletion. Imagine two groups of subjects each watching a funny film. One group is asked to resist laughing. Afterwards, the groups are given the task of solving a puzzle, which actually has no solution. Researchers measure how long the subjects keep trying. The subjects that resisted laughing during the film give up sooner on the puzzle: their willpower reserves were depleted.

It turns out that all sorts of things can cause ego depletion, including resisting eating a chocolate, being nice to others (who are being annoying) - and not having enough glucose in the bloodstream. Researchers found that giving subjects a sugar hit was enough to restore depleted willpower in the experiments. They showed that sugar was the factor by giving some subjects sugar in a lemon drink and others an artificial sweetener. If you haven't eaten for several hours, your glucose may be lower and your willpower depleted - and you may be more likely to give up on the report, skip exercise or succumb to that tempting chocolate.

The importance of willpower has been known for some time. In a classic experiment, children aged four were offered a choice. They could have one marshmallow immediately or, by waiting 15 minutes, have two. Those who were able to wait had a brighter future. Later, they had better grades, greater popularity, fewer drug problems, higher salaries and less weight gain than their more impulsive peers.

If you'd like to read about the latest research in this area, get Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Baumeister is a pioneering researcher in the field. This book is an accessible and often entertaining treatment of findings and implications, filled with amazing stories and delightful anecdotes.

The ability to delay gratification is vital to academic success, especially in research, in which articles may appear one or two years after submitting them and in which recognition for important contributions sometimes may take decades. It takes willpower to persist with research efforts when the payoffs are uncertain and distant. This may explain why, for many new academics, teaching becomes a satisfying displacement activity. After all, classes happen soon and there is gratification from engaging with students. Even administrative tasks can give feedback sooner than research work.

Even more immediately gratifying is dealing with emails and surfing the web. Email is often seen as an imposition, but checking email is a convenient way to avoid doing things with longer-term payoffs.

Baumeister and Tierney provide lots of advice, and tell about the experiences of individuals who have displayed incredible willpower, for example the famous explorer Henry Stanley. For day-to-day purposes, there are a number of suggestions worth noting. One is to put time into planning, for example making lists and sticking to them. This can help overcome impulses to procrastinate. Having a clean desk - and computer desktop - is helpful, because temptations are less visible.

Eating a healthy diet can boost willpower. Baumeister and Tierney say not to rely on the sweets used by psychologists in their experiments, because they give only a temporary glucose boost. Instead, eat vegetables, nuts, raw fruits and other foods that provide a steady supply of glucose. They also advise getting plenty of sleep, because it replenishes willpower capacity.

Willpower can be strengthened through regular practice. For example, sitting up straight in a chair, rather than slouching, requires effort. So does using your non-dominant hand for writing or using a mouse. Through such techniques, greater willpower can be developed, and used in other domains because, as researchers have found, ego depletion on one task spills over into others.

Researchers made a surprising discovery. Individuals with the greatest willpower - as shown in experiments - actually exercise it less. What is going on? These individuals use their willpower to arrange their lives so temptations are reduced. An example would be setting up your computer so that you can't access email until you complete a certain amount of writing, or removing junk food from your home.

There's a virtuous circle involved here: as you build more willpower, you achieve more, are less likely to be annoyed with others, exercise more and feel better as a result, and so on. But it's not easy. Baumeister and Tierney devote a chapter specifically to dieting, which has its own complications.

I would go so far as to say that helping students learn how to use and build their willpower would be more valuable for them in the long term than any of the content they study. Unfortunately, many have bad habits, such as procrastination in doing assignments, and entrench these habits further through their studies.

Psychologists studying willpower have mainly looked at individuals. The other side of the equation is the way society is organised - and that means lots of temptations. Advertisers know how to get under people's conscious resistance. Web designers know how to attract visitors. Consumer capitalism is built around undermining resistance to impulses. Some form of social change could make a big difference to people's willpower. But this isn't currently on the agenda. The moral virtues of self-restraint and character-building are considered old-fashioned if not entirely absurd.

In the meantime, read Willpower if you'd like to learn more about how to resist the impulse for immediate gratification. The long-term benefits are worth it.


Brian Martin
31 May 2012

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: rediscovering our greatest strength (Penguin, 2011)

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