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The Strength and Stamina of Your Willpower

William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the ...Read More

Self-Control or Strength of Will refers to your ability to resist temptation. Click here to complete a self-report measure of this aspect of Willpower. This instrument was developed by Dr. Baumeister and his colleagues to measure the resources an individual can apply during a single high-risk situation. It is a straightforward assessment tool. Please resist the temptation to complete it rapidly by being overly negative or positive about yourself. Instead, consider each item and compare yourself similar aged peers.

In contrast to strength or intensity of will, Grit is the component of Willpower that is analogous to stamina. Grit refers to maintain your focus and efforts on the task for a long enough period to see the project through. Rather than abandon the project because you get bored with it, or demoralized by setbacks or discomfort, persevering regardless of the difficulties is the measure of True Grit. Click here to complete a self-assessment of your Grit.

Self-monitoring

Your scores are subjective measures of the strength and stamina of your Will at this moment in time. Since they are subjective, they are state-dependent – you are likely to score more poorly on these measures when you are feeling puny than when feeling confident. Moreover, what is being measured, the strength and stamina of your will, changes over time. Like physical strength and stamina, willpower increases with exercise and atrophies with disuse. Consequently, I recommend that you retake these tests periodically and use the results to guide your training.

Success & Failure

Needless to say, failure is bad. Failure begets failure. More than wasting time, setting bad precedent, and producing negative emotional states, failure diminishes Self-Efficacy. Both strength and stamina are correlated with your self-efficacy. People who believe they are not capable of succeeding do not work with sufficient intensity and tend to abandon their efforts as soon as the going gets tough. As a result the outcome of their efforts tend to confirm their original belief. On the other hand, this self-confirmatory bias works in a positive way for those who have respect for the heroic nature of their challenge and for their own strength and stamina. There is considerable empirical support for the idea that: “Nothing succeeds like success.”

Be aware that negative beliefs about one’s strength and stamina are more salient and acceptable to most people, and so evaluating the power of your will tend to elicit an overly negative assessment. Much of the Emotion-Focused Coping section of this course is designed to free you of this negative bias. Until you review that section, be careful about overly critical judgments of yourself. I am not suggesting that you be positively biased, but it is important to avoid negative biases.

A muscle may be weak because it is exhausted, or weak for lack of exercise and training. Likewise, excessive short-term exercise or insufficient long-term exercise of the mental faculties associated with the exercise of will may compromise your Willpower. The remedy depends upon the cause of the weakness:

  • When the cognitive resources required to exercise will are exhausted, the solution is rest. Sleep is particularly helpful. Indeed, self-regulation failure tends to escalate over the course of the day, becoming more likely and more frequent the longer the person has been sleep deprived.

    Baumeister has also shown that after resources have been expended in self-regulation, a pleasant emotional experience will restore (to some extent) the Psyche’s capacity to regulate itself subsequently

  • When the weakness of Will is due to insufficient development, the solution involves exercising the mental faculties involved.
  • Examples from Baumeister’s lab: Having subjects practice improving posture whenever possible, keeping track of eating, speaking in complete sentences, or avoiding contractions resulted in improvement in self-regulatory capabilities. A wide range of mental exercises are described in the Emotion-Focused Coping section of this course.

Predisposing conditions for the exercise of will

High-risk situations occur when local conditions – such as social pressure, negative emotional states, etc. – promote relapse. The exercise of will involves over-riding these influences and acting as you intend. This is an impressive feat, and as far as we know, only humans can do it. Exercising Will is analogous to getting a marble to roll up hill. The power to influence behavioral and emotional responding must come from within. The resources required to produce this power are dear. When they are insufficient to over-ride the principles of cause-and-effect – such as the PIG or the Law of Practice – you are bound to follow the path of least resistance. So, an important part of the exercise of Will is developing and maintaining the cognitive and motivational resources required to to cope with the high-risk situations that you are bound to encounter. So:

  • Lead a healthy, purposeful life in which you take good care of your body. While this may sound trite it is of critical importance.
    • Rest and sleep – Aside from any other benefit of sleep, giving the creature you inhabit time to recover the biological energy required to exercise will is critical. Actually being asleep does not seem to matter as much as giving the psyche time away from the crisis to allow the exhausted faculties time to rest.

      Research from Baumeister’s lab shows that administering glucose completely reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion. This finding is particularly interesting, because it suggestions that ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. Impulsivity increases because the rational processing system, which requires energy to do its labor is less able to exert its inhibitory influence. Rather than following the path of greatest advantage (considering the long-term consequences of its choices), the creature’s behavior is determined by the immediate payoffs of the local

    • Do what you can to avoid physical exhaustion and invest in ego-replenishing activities – e.g., vacations, flow activities, regular physical exercise. Getting yourself to do these things requires the very cognitive resources we are doing these things to enhance. Like many self-referential paradoxes, seemingly contradictory outcomes are both true. Spending your willpower in some ways enhance rather than deplete it, especially when long-term outcomes are taken into account.
  • Develop your Emotion-Focused Coping Skills. Strong emotional states not only engender state-dependent distortions of appraisals, memories, and response tendencies, but they drain the cognitive resources required to exercise will. The serenity prayer is an excellent guide to the enhancement of will. Specifically:
    • Be detached from reactions to things you do not control so that you do not fritter your dear cognitive resources away in meaningless attachments. Of particular concern is the unnecessary emotionality caused by neurotic, ruminative self-focus, or by pointless attachments to things you do not control such as the past, what other people do, natural disasters, etc.
    • Be attached to good preparation and performance. You deserve to be gratified by your perseverance because you are responsible for it. Motivation to do the difficult things that need to be done can be aided by attachment to doing what it takes to be heroic – just don’t let it get out of hand.
    • Have a healthy respect for the challenge you face and for your own strengths and abilities.
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