The marshmallow test is a famous experiment from the 1960s. Researchers would offer a child one marshmallow, but promise them two if they didn’t eat the first one for 15 minutes. Then they left the child in the room alone. Some of the kids ate the sugary snack right away. But some children, although clearly tormented, were able to wait until the adult returned.
Decades later, the author of the study tracked down hundreds of children who had participated in the experiments. Those who had resisted temptation at age four went on to get better grades. They also became more popular with their peers and teachers. They earned higher salaries, had a lower body mass index, and were less likely to abuse drugs.
Willpower, it turns out, is commonly identified by psychologists as a factor that determines positive outcomes in life.
The good news is we can enhance our willpower. The book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2011) examines this in some detail.
We have a single reserve of willpower used for four broad categories. The first is how we control our thoughts. We can learn to focus our thoughts, which can have a powerful impact on how we act. The second category involves control of emotions. This is different than the control of thoughts because we can’t control our mood – we can think happy thoughts, but we can’t force ourselves to be happy. Another category is impulse control, which involves avoiding temptation. The fourth category is performance control. This involves activities like focusing on a task, balancing speed with accuracy, managing our time, and ignoring that voice in our head that tries to get us to quit halfway up a mountain.
Fortunately, there are ways we can strengthen our willpower. The brain requires glucose to function. The glucose is converted into neurotransmitters, which are required to think and exercise willpower. Studies show that people who eat before engaging in a difficult task that requires self-control perform better than those who have been fasting.
One research study showed that people who consciously improved their posture over two weeks had more self-control at the end of the study than when they started. The study has been replicated with challenges such as using your weaker hand for routine tasks and speaking only in full sentences. Just like physical training, correcting a small habitual deficiency over time strengthens your willpower. As people get better at exercising self-control with one task they also improve self-control when performing other tasks. Take this lesson to heart – improving your posture will help you tackle something harder, such as quitting smoking.
When studied further, researchers learned that people with high levels of willpower don’t have to exercise it a great deal. That’s because they tend to focus on breaking bad habits and establishing good ones.
The key to a successful life is the ability to establish positive habits, allowing you to conserve willpower for when you really need it.
First published in the December 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2011).