Research over the last twenty years that confirmed that two of the most important predictors of success in life are intelligence and willpower (or self control). We now know a number of important things about willpower:
- It is a form of energy that can get ‘used up’ over the day. It is a limited resource.
- At our best we deal with this by conserving our efforts to match the available resource. So if we have to write an important document when we are tired, we may prioritise that over resisting having biscuits with that cup of tea. At our worse we have nothing left to manage a temptation; hence we break the ‘alcohol free week’ resolution on Wednesday with one glass that turns into half a bottle.
- Many different activities draw on it: resisting impulses, making decisions, taking the initiative. All self-control tasks draw on the same energy source.
- People use it in four different spheres – regulating thoughts (e.g. resisting distracting thoughts, concentrating), regulating mood or emotion (e.g. not allowing self to fall into despair, bolstering self up); regulating impulse (e.g. resisting temptation); regulating performance (e.g.trading off speed and accuracy).
- Exertion in one area affects availability of this resource in another area: so resisting that piece of chocolate cake at break will adversely affect your perseverance at a difficult task.
- It tends to be more tired (or depleted) at the end of the day.
- It is like a muscle in that it can be strengthened through practice (like a muscle the fatigue effect of use is immediate, the strengthening effect is delayed).
- Virtue deteriorates when this resource is depleted – cheating and stealing rise for example, as do aggression, sexual misdemeanors and addictive behaviours.
- Intelligence declines when this resource is depleted, as do other cognitive functions.
- People are worse at decision-making when this resource is depleted – they are less prone to compromise and more prone to fall back on irrational bias (rather than engaging with material and thinking). They may also duck or postpone decisions.
- Initiative declines.
- Willpower is tied physically to glucose. This has real life effects: Judges are more able to deal with the complexity of parole decision-making after lunch, and the chances of getting parole increase dramatically.
What does this mean for leaders?
1) Think about when you ask people to do complex decision-making – earlier in the day is likely to be better. And probably earlier in the week.
2) Develop a true appreciation of diversity. In other words if people can truly be their gay, lesbian, parent, woman, disabled, black, jewish, etc. self at work, they can put their energy into their work, not in managing their every utterance.
3) Encourage people to work reasonable hours and to recover and refresh over night so they aren’t exhausted all the time. This may positively affect pilfering and fraud rates as well as interpersonal relations.
4) Use your willpower effectively to set up your life so that you don’t have to make dramatic draws on it. Organise work to work steadily and so avoid last minute panics, shop when you aren’t hungry and buy only ‘good’ food to have in the house. Approach your most challenging work first thing in the morning and leave ‘easy’ stuff to the end of the day.
5) Build up your own self-control muscle, practice self-control.
6) Use this resource wisely, prioritise your activities, for instance don’t start an aggressive new exercise regime that involves rising at 5.00 am every morning just as you are about to initiate a big project at work. Start new habits (exercise, diet, email control) when work is going well and smoothly and you have spare capacity.
Based on an article by Roy Baumeister in The Psychologist Feb 2012 Vol 25 No. 2
Appreciating Change offers individual coaching which incorporates helping individuals use all their resources wisely to achieve their objectives.