Will Power: It’s In Your Head

This article appeared in the November 27, 2011 issue of The New York Times. I was fascinated by the content and often wonder if we can control our will power by our sheer determination. The question remains: “Is will power an illusion?”

In her 2008 book Health at Every Size, nutritionist Linda Bacon argues that because of how the brain’s hypothalamus works, it is a “myth” that anyone can will themselves to lose weight by maintaining a diet. “It’s not your fault!” she writes, “Biology is so powerful that it can make you break the diet.”

This year, in their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Social Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, and New York Times science writer John Tierney survey a large body of scientific research to conclude that will power is limited and depends on a continuous supply of simple sugar glucose. When glucose is depleted, you fall prey to impulse shopping, affairs and cookies. The solution is:

“Try to get some glucose in you.”

Time’s writer Greg Walton and Carol Dweck do not think so. In research that they conducted — with psychologist Veronika Job — they confirmed that will-power can be quite limited – if only you believe it is. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing: when you work hard, you are energized to work more; and that when you’ve resisted temptation, you can better resist the next one. This is when people successfully exert more will-power. It turns out that willpower is in your head.

In one study, they gave people either an easy task or a more difficult task that involved self-control. Then everyone had to perform a tricky cognitive task in which they had to exert self-control to avoid making mistakes. They found that people who believed that will power was not limited continued to perform well on the second task, making fewer mistakes, even after facing the difficult initial task. The people who believed that will power is limited made almost twice as many mistakes.

In one study they followed 153 college students over five weeks. During stressful times, such as final-exam week, students who believed that will power was not limited reported eating less junk food and procrastinating less than students who did not share that belief. They also showed more academic growth, and earning better grades that particular term than their ”pessimistic”“ counterparts.

Furthermore, when they taught college students that will power was not limited, they showed similar increases in willpower. They reported procrastinating only once or twice a week instead of the two or three times by students in a controlled condition. They also discovered that students cut down on excess spending and going beyond their budgets less than once a week instead of twice a week.

Willpower is not completely unlimited. Food and rest are of course necessary for functioning. The question is how often do we need extra sugar boosts? Messages suggesting that willpower is severely limited and we need constant sugar boosts are bound to further inflate the American waistline and hinder our ability to achieve our goals.

Do we want to be a people who dismiss our weakness as unchangeable? When a student struggles in math, should we tell that student, “don’t worry, your‘re just not a math person”? Do we want him to give up in the name of biology? Or do we want him to work harder in the spirit of what he wants to become?

After reading this article I believe we need to have faith that willpower can be renewed. The famous coach Harrison Klein has helped thousands to align their subconscious, conscious and super conscious into living prosperous lives. I learned the “I am” theory from Klein at a recent conference in Scottsdale Arizona. We need to say “I am a person with strong willpower!” This is the belief system I would like to see most of us have. To believe this I will have a more productive life, I am more powerful and have more willpower.

May you have a prosperous life with the belief that you have strong will power!

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