Willpower and Headspace

The first quarter of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister (researcher) and John Tierney (journalist) is packed with fascinating research conducted by Baumeister and his colleagues. And it’s presented in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

The term “willpower” conveys the moral baggage and Victorian judgment that permeates our culture, but as it’s used in this book encompasses several different things:

  • emotional regulation
  • impulse control
  • perseverance
  • decision making

These are all linked by the fact that they use up energy, and if energy is consumed by effort exerted to maintain emotional regulation, for example, it will be less available for perseverance or making decisions.

In one of Baumeister’s studies, people who watched a sad movie and were told not to show any feeling spent less than half the time attempting to work out a puzzle afterward as compared to the people who watched the sad movie with no instructions about their feelings. Similarly, in another study people who were told to suppress their feelings while watching a sad movie ate many more M&M’s in a bowl beside them than the control group.

Mental exertion is tiring. Anybody who has tried to be patient with uncooperative kids or spent a day thinking up a plot knows that. And that tiredness is physical, too. Research shows that people exercising any of the forms of willpower experience a significant drop in glucose.

I was very excited about this book and it made me resolve the following:

  • to expect less patience when I’m keeping myself from blowing my top
  • to eat more during the day when I’m working
  • to remember that regret is a pointless exercise that uses up energy, making it more likely that I’ll have more to regret
  • ditto for self-criticism
  • to accept that choices exhaust the human brain
  • and therefore refrain from making important &/or expensive decisions right before lunch or at the end of a bunch of trivial ones–the trivial ones use up too much energy
  • and don’t revisit them because that’s just using up mental energy to re-make a done deal
  • to tell people that not only is dieting harmful for lots of reasons, but it’s also counter-productive: the very willpower exerted to keep from reaching for chips drops glucose in the body, setting up an irresistible craving for sweets.

The last 3/4 of the book was less exciting. Though it’s an easy read with a breezy style, it’s less satisfying as a hodge-podge of celebrity anecdotes and the sort of inexpert advice that generally pad self-help books, with the occasional moment of substance.

I’ll just share one last tidbit. If you make a specific plan (date, how, where) for a task, it doesn’t demand attention. Otherwise it pops up randomly like a song you can’t get out of your head. And in doing so, it drains your limited energy.

Now that is me all over. I have tons to do, but most of it doesn’t have a specific deadline. And I’m always coming up with more ranging from the mundane (wash kitchen cupboards) to the creative (new book idea). In there is my kids’ homework, ideas to get them motivated, spending time with A, a reminder to exercise, thoughts about my characters, a sentence in an article I’ve written, bills, a sewing project I left off 6 months ago, the book I’m in the middle of and need to finish for a review, another I started but didn’t finish yet, a contact for my publicist.

And that is just scratching the surface.

So I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve for conserving mental energy. After all, I wouldn’t expect to run a marathon, then clean my house from top to bottom, but that is what I’ve been demanding of myself mentally. And it got to the point, yesterday, where I told A that my head is going to explode and then I cried.

I felt much better afterward. But I’ve been practically brainless all weekend. And now I’m going to lie on the couch and read some more.

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Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

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5 comments on “Willpower and Headspace
  1. I do hope you’re feeling better. What a fascinating book! I do know how tiring exercising willpower can be but I’d never realised just what an effect it can have, nor how to moderate that effect. Thoughts going round and round in your head are what keep you awake and make you even more tired. It really is a vicious circle.

  2. Pete says:

    I like the sound of that book. And I can definitely relate to all the energy that gets used up thinking about thinking! Hope you’re feeling more rested.

  3. litlove says:

    Now that is fascinating. No wonder I got chronic fatigue! I was exhausting myself doing all 4 elements of will power from one end of the day to the other. I can’t prevent my brain from being what it is, but I do try to simplify my life. I don’t even think about domestic chores (apart from shopping, which I enjoy) until the weekend, and I do give myself lots more license to feel what I feel – and moan if I need to! Keep on taking care of yourself, Lilian. You are your only resource and must be cossetted and preserved.

  4. Rebecca H. says:

    This is so interesting! I’m a chronic worrier, so no wonder I often feel tired and that I can handle a lot less than other people can. I don’t tend to think of mental work as being physically tiring, but it makes sense. I need to remember that to help keep myself a little more balanced.

  5. I found it fascinating and am working on some changes to how I frame things mentally and to how I work logistically based on it. Yesterday was a smashing success. Today was a miserable failure. But both the success and the failure were revealing because they reinforced the validity of these findings. Yesterday I had a reasonable list and anything not on my list I resolved not to consider. Today my list went to pot and I ended up again feeling like my head would explode because too much needed attention. It was instructive!

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