How do you grow willpower?

Interesting article in the NYT on the way willpower works (Found at kottke). I can’t say the article itself is good, but the questions it raises are. Check this out:

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Ok. Stop laughing. Don’t we all test our willpower by staring at unchanging tables and walls? I know I do. And then, for fun, I break out the impossible puzzles, just for kicks!

The real problem here is that it’s hard to respect any article that mentions a study without providing references. I refuse to grant credibility to anyone using a study to support an argument without a reference. If the study was published I can read it myself and see what it actually says. Were the participants told the puzzle was impossible? How were they recruited? Were they paid? Did they accurately represent a typical urban population in age, education, etc?

As a baseline, anyone with above average willpower has a busy enough life not to have time to participate in psychological surveys. It’s a shallow, half-baked story that’s told here, and even at that, I’m not sure any conclusions can come from it. Speculation, yes. But a hypothesis, no.

I think I possess above average powers of will, but I would never test them against things I thought were pointless. Willpower works when I’m convinced of the value of the effort, or at a minimum, the value of the attempt. I can eat better or exercise more not because of some abstract force of will, but because my perception of the value grants me greater willpower.

And then the article obsesses about describing willpower in neurological terms, missing the point. For example:

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

What would a kung-fu master or sports trainer say about willpower? There are tons of higher level masters of teaching willpower, but since they don’t have neuroscience degrees, this article neglects to give them a voice (Yes, it’s a short article, but the above paragraph is basically an extended guess. Why use 10% of the article on a guess, when a phone call could bring an expert with data).

If we are creatures of habit and increase our abilities at just about anything through repetition, why are the mechanisms for the habits of willpower any different?

My question to you is how do you cultivate your own willpower? When do you feel most in control, and most out of control? How do you use this knowledge to serve you?

11 Responses to “How do you grow willpower?”

  1. Lis

    I tend to try to visualize the rewards that I’ll receive. The clearer my vision of the reward, the more willpower I have and thus the more control I have. I clarify the vision of the reward by using past successes and failures. I think constant self assessment is an important part of this process, but then again maybe I’m crazy :).

  2. Scott

    I agree about visualizing rewards – and that’s what makes the study described in the article so useless. In a study situation, what possible significant reward can any of the tasks have? I bet there is a reward, $20 or whatever that psych study participants often receive, but they get that no matter how well they perform in the study.

  3. Premal

    I tend to look at rewards in terms of being happy and peaceful. It increases my willpower to strive for things that will eventually lead me to the broader goal (of being happy and peaceful).

    I lose control when in that moment or moments, I have lost sight of the goal. If I continue to contemplate on the goal, it helps be build control.

    As Liz said, constant vigilance on situations and what you learnt from it is of immense help.

    Sorry if I blabbered away :-)

  4. Kathrin

    The radish experiment is from Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven & Tice (1998): “Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265 or There have been at least 50 studies with similar results, enough for quite a few hypotheses. A good summary of recent research is Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall & Oaten (2006): “Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior”, Journal of Personality 74(6) or

  5. Scott

    Thanks Kathrin for the reference! They should hire you at the NYT. Reading this today.

  6. Miranda

    It’s interesting what works as a reward for different people, I think. What might be a motivating reward for some, might not be the same for another. When growing your own willpower, it is a little easier than trying to encourage willpower in others.

    One of the biggest challenges in integrated project management is trying to get a project management team on the same page and motivated by the same thing — it’s a function of inspiring group willpower.

  7. Scott

    Good point – good leaders create a kind of shared willpower, or a shared goal for individuals to direct their willpower towards.

    Question: What do you mean by “integrated project management”? Never heard that phrase before.

  8. Eric

    In terms of a work place setting, I believe that money is expected. Often more money that received is expected. I think it can be part of a reward system, but there should be more to it.

    Also if we introduce rewards into the study, it would then be interesting to measure the quality of the work. Sure I can sit through a task focusing on the money at the end of the rainbow…but can I accomplish the task well?

  9. Miranda

    Things got crazy, and I didn’t make it back to your blog as soon as I would have liked. Integrated product management is a way of look at the PM process as a whole, integrating processes, people and applications. It’s look at how the whole fits together, rather than focusing just on the design phase, or on just one product.

    It also includes how a particular product would fit in with future products and services, rather than viewing each product in isolation. There will be presentations on this concept on May 20 in Austin, May 22 in Santa Clara, May 29 in Phoenix and Jun 5 in Huntsville, AL.



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