Roy Baumeister, a famous psychologist and author says that there are two traits scientists keep finding in their research, which predict positive outcomes in the life of people: intelligence and self-control. Whereas the formers has remained challenging to explore, researchers have achieved some advances in finding out how to improve the later.
His book, Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, is a masterpiece that is written in an exiting and thorough way to discuss a topic that is very complicated and elusive. Baumeister presents several key findings that challenge through hard evidence the prevailing outdated and inaccurate perceptions about willpower.
The first and most important thing that we need to know about willpower is that everybody has it. Its not something that some possess and others don’t. There are many who like to believe that willpower is a trait some possess and others don’t. As long as we are capable of doing something, anything, as small as it might be, it means that we have willpower.
The second important concept about willpower is that we have only one willpower, not several ones. And we use it to do everything that requires it. There is not such thing as being for example weak when it comes to drinking or gambling, but strong when it comes to resisting fatty food, as much as people might like to believe. There is another explanation for that, as we will see later.
Another important key concept about willpower is the muscle metaphor. Like a muscle, willpower can suffer from fatigue, but can also be strengthened. Through dedicated and continous training willpower can grow.
Based on the second and third concept mentioned, if we strengthen our willpower by doing something, we are making it stronger for everything else we need willpower for. This is a very important discovery. Sometimes, when failing in some project or goal that required us a lot of effort and willpower to work on, we might feel discouraged and think that our efforts were in vain. But one important outcome of our efforts, regardless of success or failure, is that we have strengthened our willpower and therefore made it more capable to achieve larger and more difficult tasks.
Furthermore, when we look at people who do some difficult things on a regular basis, like writing everyday, working out many times a week, being disciplined when it comes to eating, or abstaining their whole life from smoking, we might think that they are exercising a lot of willpower in their life. The surprising fact is that this is not accurate. Yes, they have exercised some willpower to be capable to do these things, but they don’t need to exercise it every time they do a specific activity. They don’t need to, lets say, force themselves to write everyday if they have been doing it for many months, or fight temptation every time somebody offers them a cigarette. What they have done is that have got used to do or not do these things, meaning they have changed these behaviour into habits. In more accurate terms, they have excerted some willpower to transform specific behaviour into habit.
And exactly that is what makes habits special: we don’t have to exercise willpower every time we practice them. A habit is by definition something that we do without the need to force ourself to do it, because we got used to it. We might put some physical or mental effort each time we practice a habit of ours, but we don’t put this effort into the struggle of whether to do something or not, as it happens in the early stages of forming a habit. Like we witness with physical exercise, if we repeat something long enough, we don’t feel the same pain we felt the first time we practiced it. The contrary might be actually true. We might feel some joy in doing it, and it is that joy that keeps us going on.
Baumeister’s work is one of those excellent contributions of psychology that is highly practical in everday life. I think that in our journey of seeking awareness, we need to know as much as we can about willpower, our greatest strength.