Sunday, 7th of July, 2013. I was standing at the starting line of Mad Marathon in Vermont – one of the most exhausting marathons in the US with a hilly terrain that has 850 feet of vertical between the lowest and highest points of the track. Last spring, I had failed at a marathon, quitting after 17 miles when my feet, knees, and everything else hurt too much. From a willpower point of view, I had done everything wrong. I went to the competition with a let’s-see-what-happens attitude. I arrived one minute before the start having exhausted my willpower all morning by trying to find the right equipment and thinking about what snacks one would need in this kind of challenge. I hadn’t told anyone about my marathon-plan; I said to people that I probably would run a half-marathon. I also had trained too little. I was supposed to train four times a week, but there was always something, and my training was more like one to two times per week. In other words, I had made failure as painless and inevitable as possible. And I failed.
This time it was all different. Two months before, when I made my decision, I firmly swore to myself that now I was going to do it (→ tool 4). I immediately put a calendar on the living room wall (→ tool 12) where I noted down all the trainings up until the marathon day. Every time I did the scheduled training, I put a green ring around the day; every time I didn’t, a red ring (→ tool 8). But I didn’t punish myself for red rings. Instead, every red ring led to a moment of reflection: what should I have done differently, so that this wouldn’t have happened (→ tool 5). The day before, I familiarized myself with the terrain, in order to be able to divide the 26.2 miles into more convenient sub-goals (→ tool 9). I also thought through in advance all the things I needed to do in the morning, in order to free my mind to concentrate on the run itself (→ tool 3). In the starting line, I felt confident. Bang! We were on our way…
Imagine that you are four years old again. The world is full of wonder when you are three feet tall. In front of you on the table is a marshmallow. A funny looking scientist tells you that he has to visit the other room. He tells you that you can eat the marshmallow whenever you want. Your mouth starts watering. But (there is always a but), if you wait until he returns without eating it, you will get another marshmallow. You get a bit confused: Should I eat one now or two later? A battle of will ensues. You try to ignore the marshmallow, but there it stands tempting you constantly. One move of your hand and you would taste its sweetness in your mouth. Are you able to outlast the fifteen minutes until the scientist returns?
A bunch of kids were put to this test in the 1960s. Researcher Walter Mischel (the funny looking scientist) wanted to see how well kids resist temptation. Turned out that some could, some couldn’t. Those who were able to wait the full fifteen minutes did it mainly by distracting themselves: they went to play with toys in the furthest corner of the room; they hid the marshmallow or just sat on top of it. These were fine results, but it was only twenty years later that this research became one of the great classics of psychological science.
Things started to unfold when Walter Mischel got the idea to see what had happened to the kids who now were in their late adolescence. It turned out that the amount of time the kids at the age of four were able to resist the tempting marshmallow predicted later success in almost all dimensions of life. Those adolescents who had been able to wait the longest outperformed others in school; they had better self-esteem, better education, lower body fat index, and they used fewer drugs. To top it all off, they were also more popular among their peers compared to kids with less ability to resist temptation.
Later research has confirmed that of different human abilities, it is precisely willpower that is one of the most important for a wide variety of outcomes. Good self-control predicts, for example, better health, lower risk for cardiovascular disease – even better teeth. Also social success benefits from willpower: when our will gets tired, we are more prone to say something we regret that compromises our contact with the people we are interacting with. It seems also that willpower – rather than the much-buzzed IQ – is a better predictor of college grade point average and other measures of academic success. Getting ahead with talent might work for a while, but sooner or later those who have learned to put in some serious effort overtake the gifted yet lazy. Looking at the biographies of great sportsmen, scientists, and politicians reveals that what unites them is not initial talent, but the grit to pursue their goals through hardships. That’s why professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania argues that “programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement” – and success in life more generally.
Lack of self-control and impulsivity, on the other hand, is one of the leading causes of alcoholism, drug usage, obesity, and domestic violence. It has even been suggested that it would be the most important variable explaining criminal behavior. People with especially low impulse control very often end up in jail at one point in their life. No wonder that one of the leading researchers of the topic, professor Roy Baumeister from Florida State University, calls it “a vital strength and key to success in life.” But do not believe the scientists only: When ordinary Americans were asked, they named lack of willpower as the most important contributor for them not living up to their goals related to healthy living. In another study done in Germany, it was found that people fought against a desire approximately one fourth of the time during their waking hours – and half of the time they lost the battle and gave in.
Whatever you are aiming at in life, willpower is one of your most important resources. It is not something that matters only in the greatest challenges of life, such as being lost on a mountain and needing to keep going to avoid freezing to death. In your everyday life, you use willpower every time you fight the urge to not peek at Facebook during the working day, when you try to say no to that cookie, when you try to keep yourself calm in front of a public servant to avoid an emotional outburst. These small wins pile up with the bigger ones – reading properly on the school exams, delivering that important work project on time – leading towards two different trajectories in life. Willpower is what makes the difference between two students, one of whom graduates with distinctions and the other of whom fails to finish the school. It is the difference between two equally talented employees, one of whom gets promoted because of his industrious grit. And it is the difference between a consistent and thus secure parent, and the other who sometimes gives in, or sometimes bursts out with anger, and thus feeds insecurity into the child’s most important human relationship.
By understanding how willpower works, you are better able to utilize it to your advantage. This is the promise of this book. The science of willpower has taken great leaps in the last 15 years. From the ingenious experiences conducted in psychological laboratories there have emerged a handful of tools that can greatly increase your chances to win the big and small challenges of your everyday life. This book aims to gather together that knowledge and deliver it to you in a concise and easily accessible way. This book is your owner’s manual to willpower. Don’t just read it. Use it. By integrating the tools provided into your everyday life you will not only get what you want – you will also get it much easier. By using these tools, you can make the right choice the easiest choice. And then it will be only natural to do the right thing.
Your journey towards being a wizard of willpower has just started…
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