Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keeping Your Willpower Level High

The recent Canadian Business has an article about willpower, a review on a new book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Happily, this book review is loaded with takeaways, so I want to share them here, adding some thoughts of mine.

1. Making commitment

Perhaps the most heard-of recommendation: you make a commitment about what you want to achieve, so that you lose face big time if you don’t do it. (And that in front of a person important to you.) Quote from the book runs like this: “Our willpower is rooted in our desire to avoid public disgrace rather than by any zeal to achieve human perfection.”

This is critical, I believe, in achieving what you really want to achieve. The caveat is, often we are afraid of talking about what we want to achieve, even to our loved ones, because we are afraid of losing face already. It’s a chicken and egg situation even before we embark on the journey: you are afraid of failing a task that you didn’t even start. Think twice: if you are afraid of the possible failure in the future, you cannot commit yourself to anything. So, make a commitment, and begin doing it right now.

2. Sugar for your brain, esp. the importance of breakfast

This one is subtle. The authors say that willpower is draining energy like anything else you do with your brain or brawn. In this regard, you are most energetic and most productive in the morning, because your gauge is high due to last night’s sound sleep. The same goes for the breakfast. Without it, your energy level would be one notch lower.

I’ve been thinking about this, to some extent, all my life. Morning rush is always a big pain. If you had that 20 minute for breakfast, you would have taken more sleep. :) And then, they say human species have been eating breakfast all the historic and prehistoric time except a few recent decades. Then again, the nature of job most of us do, is different from the ones in the those times yonder: Our ancestors plowed through the earth, from the sunrise!

I have hit upon my personal conclusion about this dilemma a few years ago. A Japanese author whose name I do not remember said that morning is more related with “pushing out” instead of “taking in,” by the Order of Nature. This means morning is more for the bowel movement than stuffing our body with even more food. Not breaking the “fast,” (i.e. by not having breakfast), we can effectively fast for long time everyday, from the dinnertime last night till today’s lunch. Since I do not feel like “going out for food” until about 10AM or so, I am just following his advice and do not eat breakfast. (At 10, when it’s feasible, of course I eat a portion equivalent to everybody else’s breakfast. If not, some coffee and a bun.)

3. Depletion of willpower

This point is great. We all know that, but never heard of this assertion in words. Like anything else, willpower is depleted by use and natural drain. So, you must have the courage to acknowledge that your willpower level is low, when it is low.

Also from this hypithesis, you get other conclusions such as 1) focus on one thing rather than many, 2) do important things in the morning, and 3) use break and nibbles to replenish your willpower.

4. One thing at a time

Natural advice from point 3. Focus on just one thing at a time. Do not make your mind to quit smoking and to go on a diet at the same time. You drain your willpower twice as fast and will give in to your instinct.

5. Get busy

This one’s also great. Keep yourself busy, and you don’t have the time to succumb to petty desires like going choco-holic. The caveat here is, getting busy by yourself is really difficult and drains a lot of willpower, I believe. The flip side is, naturally, if someone gets you busy, you thank for her/him.

6. The real reward is the achievement itself, not some cookie treat

The ending-credit remark in the review, also sounds like music. There are a whole lot of suggestions about so-called gamification. Making a game out of what you must do is great, but always there is the danger of putting the cart in front of the horse. Means and ends must be kept separate: you are not making the wonderful endeavor of yours for the cookie jar.

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