Willpower

“You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit, not an act.” It was, allegedly, Aristotle who wrote the above aphorism. On Tuesday there is a free talk at uni by the famous Roy Baumeister, on “Willpower: how to make it work for you”.

(Come along! 9am -10 am, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, 234 Queensberry Street, Room Q219 on Level 2; it’s hosted by The Centre for Positive Psychology.)

I think those two things – Aristotle’s idea of excellent habits, and Baumeister’s research on willpower – are connected, due to the immense amount of self-control it takes to create lasting behavioural change. To come back to the path towards your goals, again and again and again, in the face of certain setbacks and failures along the way.

When I said “creating lasting behavioural change”, I was being deliberately vague. The kind of goals that spring most readily to mind are things like “eating healthily”, “giving up smoking”, “exercising more” – and in fact, in a Q&A from last year, Baumeister spoke about willpower’s relationship to all of these good and bad habits.

Most pertinently to me right now though, was the willpower required to sit down and write, rather than dive straight into bed. I think there are three reasons why I am not under my doona right now.

One of them Baumeister also discusses; it is glucose. Glucose, apparently, restores self-control, and thus the fact that I just ate several choc chip biscuits, two serves of icecream, one slice of apple pie and one bowl of self-saucing chocolate pudding should mean that I currently have the willpower levels of some sort of super-hero. (Movie-night at a friend’s house, in case you were wondering; I’m not usually such a glutton :p). Either that, or I know that all that sugar is likely to keep me awake for a few more hours anyway, so there’s no point going to bed.

The second reason is slightly less frivolous (or delicious). When I was looking up this idea of willpower, glucose, and self-control, I also came across this article about how mindfulness meditation can counteract the effects of self-control depletion. While the glucose-willpower link works on a model of willpower where willpower is a resource which can be replenished – you “top up” your willpower with a sugary drink! – it seems to me that mindfulness would have to work through some different mechanism (you’re not “topping up” anything with mindfulness), and thus suggests that there might be other possible models of willpower too. I’m just speculating, though I’m not the only person who’s had this idea.

Finally, the idea of willpower and habits and excellence reminded me of one of my favourite blog posts of all time, by science-blogger-siblings Jesse and Julia at Measure of Doubt. Their conclusion? Precommit to eating the cupcake. I don’t know if it works for resisting the temptation to go to bed, but guess what? I don’t have to find out. Goodnight all!

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Photo credit: jo@net, Flickr, CC

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