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The Self-Fulfilling Nature of Willpower
Hello, good people! I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving week. Just a heads up, there is a code for 75% off our 30x30 program near the end of this email. It’s a great way to get exercise, meditation, gratitude, and a daily lesson in being a better human all in 30 minutes a day for 30 days.
Now, let's jump into today’s stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Seneca, in his 18th Letter to Lucilius, on Festivals and Fasting:
“It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Author, Robert Greene, on how beliefs can enhance willpower:
“Do not be afraid to exaggerate the role of willpower. It is an exaggeration with a purpose. It leads to a positive self-fulfilling dynamic, and that is all you care about.”
Source: The Laws of Human Nature, by Robert Greene
ONE FROM US
In the late 1990s, the psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a famous study on willpower. Participants were placed in a room with two plates of food - a plate of radishes and a plate of warm fresh cookies. Half the participants were instructed to abstain from eating cookies and only eat radishes. The other half were told that they could eat whatever they wanted. Then the two groups were given a puzzle to work on. Unbeknownst to the subjects, this puzzle was impossible to finish. The experimenters wanted to see if the radish-only group, who had been fighting back their cookie cravings, would quit earlier. And they did. Radish-only participants lasted an average of eight-minutes while the eat-anything group and the control group both averaged 19-minutes.
After many similar studies, Baumeister concluded that willpower was like a muscle, which lost strength as it fatigued. Many have since taken this willpower depletion model to rationalize impulsive behavior as an inevitable consequence of circumstances. It provides us an easy cop-out after a workday when we’d rather plop on the couch than exercise. More broadly, it is a common justification for excusing low standards in schools and other developmental institutions: It isn’t fair to ask as much of him because he has disadvantages that drain his willpower. What appears as compassion is actually subtle cruelty. We amplify the effect of people’s disadvantages by seeking out rationalizations for every misstep, thereby removing the impetus for correction. Rather than instill a belief that if they care and try hard enough they can find a way, students are programmed to find an excuse.
This tendency is especially problematic in light of recent research indicating that the willpower depletion effect was overstated by past studies, as these excluded findings that did not fit their desired conclusion. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of the willpower research revealed that the most significant factors in people’s ability persist are how committed a person is to their goals and whether she believes she has the necessary willpower or not.
Still, willpower-depletion is a legitimate variable, but most people missed Baumeister’s larger insight. This essential life-changing quality - willpower - is like a muscle. It grows stronger with exercise. Triathletes don’t use the existence of fatigue as justification to demand a shorter race. They train their capacity to endure longer and go faster. Likewise, success in life will continue to require willpower and to reward those who build more of it. This is one of the few certainties we have about the future.
Thus, educators and parents should consistently put youth in situations that require them to develop willpower. No, you don’t get to watch TV before doing your homework. Yes, it is hot outside and I expect the lawn to be mowed as usual. Bring some water. We must expect people to demonstrate willpower and train it through millions of tiny standards. Willpower training is a staple of life and should be a central focus of every school and every parent’s worldview. We can train our willpower to grow more capable of behaving as we objectively want to behave - to act more like we want to act and be like we’d want to be.
The implications of the radish study don’t stop there. A large part of the challenge for the radish-eating group was smelling cookies and watching others eat them. Remove the cookies and you remove the willpower fatigue. Likewise, if you go to a school where there is no access to social media and phone games, where it is normal to study, and where all the available food options are nutritious, then it requires far less willpower to focus, study, and eat well. Rather than teaching our kids to expect safe spaces, third chances, and infinite accommodations, we should build our environments to support effort, focus, exploration, courage, toughness, perseverance, honesty, critical thinking, and the competition of ideas.
But even more than that, we should explicitly teach students how to design their environment to promote their desired behaviors. My experience with students is that they don’t know how to make a plan to achieve a goal and they don’t know how to adapt to the inevitable hiccups along the way. They just feel helpless. The subject of environmental design should be explicitly taught and modeled throughout every school. This begins with setting smart boundaries for technology but, more than that, we must give people a toolkit for creating behavior change that lasts.
I’ve chosen this message for today because it is December 1st and the holiday season is upon us. This is a wonderful time full of traditions, family, charity, and goodwill. But it is also a time where our culture tends to excuse constant excess in everything from eating to spending to scheduling. Don’t get me wrong, I feasted on Thanksgiving and look forward to making cinnamon rolls, drinking wine, and feasting again on Christmas. The problem is when the season becomes a justification for constant consumption, which pushes out any room for more rewarding concerns.
We follow the holidays with New Years Resolution season, but 80% of people fail by February. This should come as no surprise in a culture whose goals revolve around consuming more. If you can’t begin a slow introduction to your resolution in December, then it is very unlikely the January resolution will stick. Why not use this December to plan, prepare, and dip your toe into a new resolution? The big days and big events can still be big and they’ll be all the more enjoyable because they are contrasts to your daily patterns. Pleasures can enhance our lives, but it is worth remembering that getting more of something will never be as rewarding as becoming more.
With that in mind, we have made the 30x30 challenge 75% off (just $10) now through midnight December 9th. Use the coupon code: DECEMBER RESOLUTION or just go to this link.
Also, this time last year, Justin, me, and many of our IHD members did a 48-hour fast together. It was more empowering and connecting than I could have imagined. We plan to do this again in the next couple of weeks. Justin will give more specific details next week, but I wanted to put this on your radar if you are interested in doing some version of an extended fast at the same time. Please reply to this email if you’d like access to an online group for this event and please forward to any friends you’d like to challenge to join us.
As always thank you for reading and sharing with your kindred spirits!
Life is too short to be normal,