Published 23/09/2012 | 06:00
New research claims you can teach yourself to resist your hedonistic impulses and harness your willpower, says Suzanne Harrington
How's your willpower -- iron-clad? Be honest now. Can you resist temptation when it's right under your nose? When you set yourself goals, do you see them through, or are they as useless as a list of New Year's resolutions?
Do you procrastinate? Get side-tracked? Regularly fall off all kinds of wagons?
Or are you with the YOLOs (you only live once), and think the whole idea of willpower and self-control is a lot of control-freak miserablism?
A new book, by social psychologist Roy F Baumeister and 'New York Times' science writer John Tierney, presents willpower as a basic necessity.
'Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success' talks us through the importance of having it and how, without it, our desires overcome us, no matter how good our intentions.
Darwin, writing in 'The Descent of Man', said: "The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts."
Some people are brilliant at this, and, by controlling their thoughts, control their actions too.
We all know these people -- rigorously disciplined in their food intake, one-small-glass-of-whatever types who when they say they are getting up every day at 6am to go running, actually do it.
People with ingrained willpower can be both mysterious and envy-inducing. And it is ingrained.
According to Baumeister and Tierney, willpower and self-control are largely determined by our genes.
Think of those kids in Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiment, in which small children were offered one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes.
The ones who waited had not read any books about willpower, but had an innate ability to distract themselves and were rewarded for their delayed gratification.
What is interesting is that the kids who showed the most willpower aged four went on to achieve better grades, were more popular with peers and teachers, earned more as adults, and had fewer problems with drug misuse and weight gain.
If you were one of the kids who would have grabbed the marshmallow immediately -- I know I would have -- this can make for depressing reading. But chin up.
Willpower and self-control -- or self-regulation, as it is now known -- can be learned and, like a muscle, increased with regular use.
"Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time," concluded Baumeister in an earlier book, 'Losing Control'.
Without it, we're fatter, drunker, higher with greater rates of divorce and criminality.
"People with good self-control seemed especially good at forming and maintaining secure, satisfying attachments to other people," writes Tierney.
"They were more stable emotionally and less prone to anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychoticism, obsessive compulsive behaviour, eating disorders, drinking problems and other maladies."
Baumeister's experiments have shown that "improving willpower is the surest way to a better life".
This is because "most major problems centre on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement at school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger".
While it could never be argued that alcoholism or addiction is down to lack of willpower -- it's bigger than that -- research shows how we underrate the importance of self-control when listing our personal strengths.
Honesty, kindness, humour, creativity all appear, but self-control is the least valued positive trait. Yet it is part of us, and something we exercise all the time, often without even being aware of it.
"Desire [is] the norm, not the exception," writes Tierney. We spend a fifth of our waking hours resisting it -- the desire to eat, to snooze, to stop work and have fun, to have sex.
"We are best at resisting sleep, sex and spending, but not so good at resisting food.
"Much of self-control operates unconsciously. At a business lunch, you don't have to consciously restrain yourself from eating off your boss's plate."
In Victorian times, willpower used to be the norm, a trait that was regarded much the same as cleanliness and godliness. Only an exceptional hedonist such as Oscar Wilde would boast that he could resist everything except temptation -- everyone else really could.
"Genius is patience," wrote Samuel Smiles in a popular 19th-century book titled 'Self-Help', which rated "self-denial" and "untiring perseverance" as routes to success.
A more esoteric idea was put forward around the same time by American minister Frank Channing Haddock in his book 'Power Of Will', which called it "an energy which is susceptible of increase in quantity and of development in quality".
Freud was equally vague, writes Tierney, believing that "the self depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy".
Following the Victorian obsession with willpower, self-control and character building, the early 20th century saw a mass exhalation.
Exhausted by the 'duty' of going to war, Western society relaxed a bit. Only in Germany did a 'psychology of will' develop, to help the nation recover from the Second World War.
This notion of national willpower was hijacked by the Nazis in the 1930s, exemplified in Leni Riefenstahl's notorious propaganda film 'Triumph of the Will'.
Suddenly, willpower didn't seem like such a good idea any more, especially when it became blurred with mass obedience to a sociopath.
After the Second World War, consumer society took off, with the emphasis on buying stuff and materially keeping up with the Joneses, instead of being led by your own steely sense of moralistic self-control.
Then came baby boomers in the 1960s, whose mantra was, 'If it feels good, do it', and the 'me' generation of the 1970s, where social scientists searched for external factors on which to blame personal failure, rather than an individual's lack of self-control.
Even Baumeister was once sceptical about willpower, believing that self-esteem was the most important attribute. But self-esteem alone is not enough.
"While international surveys showed that US eighth-grader maths students had exceptionally high confidence in their own abilities, on tests they scored far below Koreans, Japanese and other students with less self-esteem," he says.
Finally, in the 1980s, psychologists re-invented self-control, calling it self-regulation. Turns out we do need it after all, that too much of do-what-thou-wilt can be ruinous.
So where do you start? By making a list? Giving yourself a stern talking to?
Actually, willpower starts with breakfast. If you are hungry, it affects your decision-making and, subsequently, your ability to make appropriate choices and follow them through.
"The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycaemia," writes Tierney. Another study showed below-average glucose levels in 90pc of juvenile delinquents.
"No glucose, no willpower," he concludes, adding, "they even tested dogs."
And here is a horrible paradox for those of us with low self-control around food.
"As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat -- which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets," the researchers found.
Luckily, you can over-ride this by feeding yourself protein, and maintaining steady blood-sugar levels so that you don't get too hungry and go too crazy as a result.
For any project, "the first step in self- control is to set a clear goal".
Not 20 goals, just one. Too many conflicting goals -- lose weight, learn French, move jobs, delouse the children -- only causes anxiety and unhappiness, and moves us a step nearer the f**k-it button, or "the destructive short-term mindset that goes with addiction".
Instead, bear in mind the Zeigarnik Effect -- "uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one's mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, this stream of reminders comes to a stop" -- and do things one at a time. Calmly, thoughtfully and attainably.
Just beware decision fatigue.
Or, as Tierney summarises about how best to cultivate willpower and live optimally, "The best way to avoid stress in your life is to stop screwing up".
Know your limits
Remember, your supply of willpower is limited. You start off with a fresh supply each morning, and it wanes as the day goes on.
Watch for symptoms
Willpower depletion manifests as frustration, impulsivity, irrationality.
Make a to-do list
An attainable one.
Or make a to-don't list.
Beware of overly
Don't be unrealistic in the speed
of achieving your goals.
By monitoring yourself, crucial for any goals you have set yourself, you avoid sliding into denial.
When you set a goal, set a reward for reaching it. Give yourself the reward, so that you associate willpower with good things rather than grimness.