The secrets of self-control
Imagine this. There is an apple and a piece of cake on a table. Which one would you like?
The delicious cake or the healthy apple? A new bestseller by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, claims that having strong willpower is essential to a successful life.
Willpower is the ability to resist temptation – the ability to make decisions that are better
for us in the long term, rather than in the short term… choosing to eat the apple rather than the piece of cake, or going to the gym rather than lazing about on the sofa.
The book starts by describing a famous experiment: The Marshmallow Test. In 1972, psychology professor Walter Mischel tested the willpower of 600 four-to six-year-olds.
In the experiment, each child was left alone in a room for fifteen minutes with a marshmallow on a table in front of them. They were given two choices: they could
either eat the marshmallow or, if they waited fifteen minutes, they’d be given a second marshmallow (and then they could eat both).
So, what did the kids do? Well, as you can imagine, 70% ate the first marshmallow
within the fifteen minutes. But the other 30% showed willpower – they resisted the
temptation and waited for the second marshmallow. But then Mischel discovered
something really interesting. Twenty years later, he got in touch with the children,
who, by then, were in their early twenties. And he found that those who’d shown strong willpower were getting better marks at university, were better behaved and were
But the authors cite an even more incredible experiment. Thirty years ago, psychologists tested the willpower of 1,000 three-year-olds. Then, they followed the progress of the participants up until the present day. And they discovered that those who had strong willpower as children became healthier and wealthier adults. And those who showed low
willpower as children were four times more likely to get in trouble with the law.
But don’t worry if you aren’t good at controlling your impulses – you can work on it. The authors say that willpower is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. So, if you do regular “self-control exercises”, such as making your bed every morning or flossing your teeth every night, you’ll improve your overall willpower. And the book’s daily willpower exercises will help you with those bigger goals, such as studying for an exam or
training for a marathon.
Be careful though. Just like any muscle, your “willpower muscle” can get tired. The authors say that when we have to make a series of willpower-related decisions, we exhaust our willpower. And we soon start giving in to temptation. So, if you’ve had to do lots of things that require willpower, take a break or give yourself a treat. That way, you’ll build up your
willpower reserves again.
And one last thing. The authors mention that people who learn foreign languages usually have a lot of willpower. So, congratulations.
Baumeister and Tierney write that daily self-control exercises increase overall willpower. How? Because with each exercise you’re training yourself to override automatic habits and take control of your actions. Try these.
1. Watch a funny movie but try not to laugh. Or a sad movie and try not to cry.
2. Try and maintain good posture.
3. Always try to speak in grammatically correct and complete sentences.
4. Occasionally, use the opposite hand to brush your teeth or use the computer mouse.