Willpower

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A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a book about willpower and before I forget everything that I read I will write down what has stayed in my mind. Here is the author Roy Baumeister giving a talk about willpower.

The most important thing to remember is that willpower needs glucose. If you are hungry or tired you tend to lose willpower and pretty much give in to any temptation. I remember reading about the Japanese army when they went into Nanking and arrested all the Chinese men. They didn’t feed them for a day or so. That was enough to break any resistance.

People who go on diets are assailed by a desire to eat unhealthy things and since their levels of glucose are low they quickly run out of willpower and tend to give in to temptation. After eating and replenishing their supply of willpower, they wonder how they could have been so weak and hate themselves again. This the Catch-22 situation of dieting. Feed yourself and you have enough willpower to resist the temptation to eat; starve yourself and you have depleted willpower.

Of course, healthy foods also provide the body with glucose, just not as quickly as sugary things. Therefore the solution to this Catch-22 situation is to eat enough healthy food so you never even start to get cravings for unhealthy, quick-fix sugary foods.

The next thing to remember is that developing good habits is the best way to build willpower. Making yourself go for a run once in a blue moon when it is cold outside, or making yourself eat salad when you are used to eating doughnuts will feel like hard work and you won’t stick at it for long. Yet once something has become second nature to you, you hardly give it a second thought. I know this from personal experience. During my twenties I used to get up at 4.40 am six days a week for my job (I was a postman). During the same period I often worked 4 hours overtime in the evening at the main sorting office, as well as playing football for three different teams on Saturdays, Sundays and Thursday afternoons. There was also football training once or twice a week. None of this seemed particularly onerous to me at the time. It was just what I did. However, if you were to ask me now to get up at 4.40am or to run 100 metres I would politely say no. It would be too much effort, partly because I am older and unfitter and partly because I’m out of the habit of doing such things. Of course, one of the reasons I am unfitter is because I’m out of the habit.

Little by little I got lazy and I grew to like some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion

I liked the idea of being free from compulsion so much that I used to fantasize about being diagnosed as mentally ill and being placed in a convalescent home where I would stroll around the grounds, eat when meals were served and then sit outside on a bench with a rug over my knees, staring out over the lake. Once in a while a kindly nurse would come over and talk to me. That was how quietist I had become.

Basically I came to think that trying wasn’t cool and and what’s the point in trying anyway once you are reasonably happy. After all, the universe is going to die a heat death in 50 billion years and some mad men will almost certainly wreck the world before then so what’s the point in building for the future?

I have always structured my life so that there is very little compulsion in it. I left home at nineteen to go and live in another country. This way no one could tell me when to clean my shoes or get my hair cut. The jobs I have done tended to be ones where I could largely do things in my own way and at my own speed. In some cases I have shied away from a commitment in relationships because I didn’t want to feel under duress to do my share of the household tasks. I didn’t want to turn out like Arnold in Phillip Larkin’s Self’s the man:

Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,

And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire,

And when he finishes supper
Planning to have a read at the evening paper
It’s Put a screw in this wall
He has no time at all,

With the nippers to wheel round the houses
And the hall to paint in his old trousers
And that letter to her mother
Saying Won’t you come for the summer.

To compare his life and mine
Makes me feel a swine:
Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.

But wait, not so fast:
Is there such a contrast?
He was out for his own ends
Not just pleasing his friends;

And if it was such a mistake,
He still did it for his own sake,
Playing his own game.
So he and I are the same,
Only I’m a better hand
At knowing what I can stand.

Yet now when I look at the Japanese people around me whose lives are largely dictated by lots of outer compulsion, like long working hours, children to look after, spouses to consider, neighbourly obligations and a hundred other things, I find that these people are not the drones I had feared I might turn into but often nice, attractive people with a lot more energy, willpower and friendships than I have. I now think ‘cool’ is just for silly teenagers trying to look, well, cool.

It turned out that once I had successfully avoided most outer compulsion, my inner compulsion wasn’t enough to motivate me. So I became lazy and weak-willed. Had I exposed myself to more external compulsion and gone into the army or got married I’m sure I would have ended up with more oomph and willpower.

I now realise it wasn’t for the sake of some distant goal that I should have been trying harder but because trying makes you a better and stronger person now. Someone doing cross country running in the mud feels different, and is different, to someone dozing off in his armchair. Striving can sometimes get you what you want from life but it is also worth doing just for its own sake.

But back to the book. Removing temptation also seems to be a big part of gaining self-control since constantly being tempted wears you down until you finally give in. People watching a movie with sweets within easy reach do worse on subsequent endurance tests than people watching a movie with no sweets in sight because the former have already used up their limited supply of willpower in resisting the sweets. The lesson is not to wear yourself out by resisting temptation but instead not to place temptation in your way in the first place.

Equally, rather than buying unhealthy food and then trying not to eat it once home, don’t buy it in the first place or even look at it in the supermarket. If it isn’t in your fridge then you probably won’t think about it. And if you do think about it and then decide to put on your coat and go out and buy some anyway, at least the walk will do you good.

At first I thought that removing temptation from your life was a bit of a cheat. After all, you are not really gaining in willpower, just avoiding situations where your willpower is tested by temptation. You are really just changing your environment, not your inner ability to resist temptation when it shows up. Yet this is not quite true. If you manage to re-wire your brain through the constant avoidance of say, chocolate, so that you no longer crave it, that is one less thing in the world to be tempted by. You become the kind of person who doesn’t miss eating chocolate.

Maybe there is just as much merit in getting used to not wanting bad things as there is in developing an iron will that can resist any temptation, though I think Immanuel Kant would disagree. For him the only real moral merit is when you stop yourself from doing something you would like to do. On this view, if you have no appetite for sex then you can’t really claim your abstinence from promiscuity is ‘moral’ since you are not remotely tempted to be promiscuous in the first place.

I can see what he means, but this would also mean that fearless people aren’t really brave, since bravery is really the overcoming of fear. It would also mean that people to whom behaving well is second nature because they were brought up that way are not really moral beings because they aren’t struggling against their own internal longings. I think a definition of morality that leaves out naturally good people is an odd definition. The same is true of willpower.

There is one more thing you can do to strengthen your willpower and that is to make things difficult for yourself: brush your teeth with your weaker hand, walk up stairs rather than using the lift, read a book upside down (I’m surprisingly good at this after 20 years of monitoring my students’ work while standing in front of them). After a while you will get used to making an effort, just as you get used to other things.

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