This past weekend, I had the privilege of leading a program on boosting focus and productivity with a group of 100 Executive MBA students. While speaking with a small group after the session, the topic of willpower was raised.
This discussion got me thinking about willpower. Is there a way to build self-regulation so that we can develop better habits and behaviors?
Self-regulation plays a key role in the actions you take. Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist and professor at Florida State University. His research shows that through self-regulation, you can try to control emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
Exerting this control uses up limited resources and results in temporary ego depletion, or a reduced ability to resist temptation and make good choices. This may be why although you start each day determined to eat healthily, you seem unable to resist the Ben & Jerry's pint of half baked ice cream by 9:30 PM when you are feeling the exhaustion of the day.
Like willpower, self-regulation decreases the more it is used, but, it is also strengthened through use. When you become too depleted, it leads to less optimal decision-making and poor behavior (see Ben & Jerry's reference above). If you are approaching many tasks that require self-regulation, you will find that after the first task, you experience ego depletion on each subsequent task.
According to Baumeister and his colleagues, you can strengthen this ‘muscle’ in many ways, including through regular physical exercise, financial management, and healthy eating.
All of these domains require great self-control. When you exercise, stick to a budget, and choose nutritious options, your self-regulation will improve not only in these areas but in other spheres as well. Building the willpower muscle leads to better decisions, greater focus, and enhanced well-being.
Want to learn more, check out this video with Roy Baumeister and NY Times journalist John Tierney. The two co-authored Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
If you find it difficult to exercise willpower one day, don't give up on yourself. Try to build your self-regulation muscle through small, deliberate acts. Over time, your strength (and resistance to temptation) will build. Until then, it may be best to keep the Ben & Jerry's out of the house.
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