Willpower is best used with care

by Limbic on August 21, 2006

From Willpower is best used with care | Higher Education | The Australian:

Some people are simply more susceptible to temptations and distractions, and we all sometimes reach the limits of our willpower sooner than we would like. “Programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement,” psychologists Duckworth and Seligman conclude from their findings.

So what can we do to strengthen self-discipline, to transform ourselves from impulsive dollar-snatchers to lofty long-term investors in future success?

Help lies in seeing willpower as a muscle, recent research suggests. The “moral muscle”, as it has been called, powers all of the difficult and taxing mental tasks that you set yourself. It is the moral muscle that is flexing and straining as you keep attention focused on a dry academic article, bite back an angry retort to your boss, or decline a helping of your favourite dessert. And herein lies the problem: these acts of restraint all drain the same pool of mental reserves.

…if you draw on your reserves to achieve one unappealing goal – going for a jog, say – your moral muscle will be ineffective when you then call on it to help you switch off the television and start essay-writing.

What, then, can we do about this unfortunate tendency of the moral muscle to become fatigued with use? One option is to build it up and make it strong. Evidence is starting to accumulate that the moral muscle, like its physical counterpart, can become taut and bulging from regular exercise. People asked by experimenters to be self-disciplined about their posture for two weeks were afterwards stronger willed when it came to a test of physical endurance, compared with other people allowed to slouch about in their usual comfortable way during the fortnight.

By regularly exercising self-restraint and virtue in all areas of life (moral muscle cross-training, we may call it), we will come to resist temptations with the same casual ease with which a world-class athlete sprints to catch a train. That, at least, is the idea.

Unfortunately, like any sensible, long-term strategy for self-improvement, this approach has limited appeal. For just as we want to fit into those trousers next Monday – not after eight tedious weeks of healthy eating and regular exercise – it is often the same for our more cerebral ambitions. Exam dates are set in stone, deadlines loom on the horizon, or may even mock us from the past. In other words, there simply may not be enough time to become a master of temperance and virtue before tackling our goal.

Fortunately, there is also an attractive quick-fix approach to the problem of limited willpower. This is to use your moral muscle only very sparingly.

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