To do well at anything there is usually a need for sacrifice. A need to give up short-term gratifications for long-term gains. We call this self-discipline – a vital component of success in any field. (Not surprisingly, self-discipline has been found to be more predictive of academic success than IQ.)
Now what if I told you that self-discipline is not something that you are just born with and that instead it is like fuel. What if I told you that self-discipline can run out after being exerted and therefore also requires refuelling? This may sound like a bizarre notion but while doing some research for my book I came across a 2007 review of various studies on the issue and it turns out that this idea is not so wacky after all. In fact over 50 different studies have come to the conclusion that self-discipline is akin to some kind of limited fuel. [1. There are some objections to the model.]
The notion that self-discipline can be fatigued like a muscle, or used up like fuel, was perhaps best exemplified in a 1998 study by Dr. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues. In the experiment, subjects who had exerted self-control to eat radishes instead of freshly baked cookies, gave up a lot faster on a problem-solving task which they were presented with after their vegetable ordeal. Check out the differences in persistence below:
After forcing themselves to eat radishes, the first group of people (the black bar on the chart) gave up much more quickly on a subsequent problem-solving task. The next group (the middle bar) did not have to use up any willpower as they were allowed to eat the chocolate. These people persisted a lot longer on the same task. This experiment further supported the idea that after using up your willpower to resist some temptation, subsequent self-regulation becomes a lot harder.
In the cookie experiment we saw how simply exerting self-control over what to eat can lead to people giving up easily on subsequent tasks that require some form of willpower. As such, one of the first ways you can improve your self-discipline is by not being such a hardass on yourself all the time. Get a little loose. Play some video games. Eat some pizza. Do something unproductive. Just as it is best to rest your muscles before doing a strenuous physical activity, it is also important to rest your willpower muscles before tackling something that requires a lot of self-discipline.
2. Build Willpower Muscle through Training
Recently I have been doing a lot of running. I run 5000 meters two to three times a week and I have been amazed at how quickly my body has adapted with stronger and bigger muscles. Building your willpower strength and stamina appears to be no different. For example in one study, university students who spent two weeks training their willpower muscles showed significant improvement in persistence after going through an ordeal similar to our cookie and radish experiment subjects. The training involved simple but consistent acts of self-discipline such as monitoring and improving posture – always sitting up right for example. While the research is still inconclusive, it could be that small but consistent acts of self-regulation, such as checking your facebook only twice a day, can help strengthen your overall willpower!
3. Eating and Drinking the Right Stuff
I have to say, the research in this area is more vague. There are a few things we are relatively sure of when it comes to grey matter. Among them, the fact that the brain is 2% of the body’s mass but consumes a whopping 20% of it’s calories! Also, we can’t be too wrong to suspect that what you eat and drink can affect how you think and ultimately, whether you have healthy enough cognitive processes to exert the willpower required to give up short-term gain for long-term gain. While somewhat of a hunch, I suspect that keeping a healthy diet is likely to keep your brain, and ultimately willpower muscles, in good shape also.
If I may diverge for a moment, the geeks out there might be interested in this academic paper which points out that having depleted glucose levels (or sugar) could be a detriment to willpower. It also highlights that alcohol reduces glucose levels and therefore hampers self-control. But we already know this – there are no limits to a drunk afterall.
Academic success involves a significant amount of self-discipline, self-control, and willpower – terms which I have used interchangeably through out this article to represent something that often separates first-class degree graduates from the average university student population. If a number of studies show that willpower can be depleted and that in someways, it is like a muscle, then it means that students who currently lack the self-discipline to get a first just might be able to better harness and train their willpower muscles to do so.