In recent months the American Psychological Association (APA) has released several papers examining the role of willpower on life choices and making life changes. There is important ongoing research which is increasing the understanding of the role of willpower in everyday life.
Willpower is best defined as the ability to delay gratification, resist short-term temptations so that long-term goals are more effectively and consistently met. Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University, is one of the field’s leading researchers and has recently released his newest book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength which examines much of the current understanding on the importance of willpower in successful living.
Research suggests that willpower is correlated with positive life outcomes such as higher self-esteem, greater financial security and improved physical and mental health. Students who rank high on self-discipline have better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized-test scores.
Psychology has identified two primary qualities that strongly impact success: intelligence and willpower. Perhaps surprising to some, level of self-discipline has been shown to be more important than intelligence in predicting academic success. This is important because while there is little that can be done to improve the level of intellectual functioning; research suggests that there are tools to improve willpower and self-control.
Improving the level of self-control and discipline in everyday life has the potential to make a significant and beneficial difference in the quality of life. Willpower touches nearly all aspects of making healthy decisions. Whether it is healthy eating, regular exercise, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, or financial discipline, the importance of maintaining focus on the bigger picture and the long range goal is undeniable.
Many studies have found that people perform less successfully on tests of self-control when there have been a significant succession of demands for self-control. It is very often advised to “change one thing at a time” rather than setting too many goals at once. This research confirms the importance of this approach as demanding too much control and discipline when focusing on a long term goal is counterproductive.
Studies show that self-control may be strengthened by the foods we eat and when we eat. Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs. Low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks. If your goal is to lose weight, letting your blood sugar drop too low will very likely sabotage your ability to stick with your food plan because your will power will be lower. Even if your goal is not food related, maintaining a good brain chemistry balance is important.
It was found that the same energy used for self-control is also used for making decisions. The research suggests that making too many decisions seems to deplete willpower. After experiencing a time where many decisions are required, people perform worse at tasks requiring self-control. Therefore, it is important to not overwhelm yourself with continuous unrelated demands when attempting to exercise self-control.
Some research suggests self-control can be improved through practice by focusing on small tasks in order to strengthen willpower for the bigger challenges. Dr. Baumeister asserts that “as with a muscle, willpower gets stronger from regular exercise”. Engaging in less difficult self-control activities such as a vow to stop swearing, to make the bed every day or to give up just one food for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control when the focus is on bigger challenges. Start small and move forward from there.