article

Understanding
Willpower

Revel Gordon

One of my clients has a fantastic plaque on his desk. It reads: ‘This conversation is on the record.’ When I asked him about it, he said “It’s there to remind me that as a leader, everything I say and do has an impact on those around me. It’s important that I model the behaviours and values I expect from my team.”

He tries to calibrate his actions not just based on his own needs, but based on the needs of those around him and the example he wants to set. If one of his team drops the ball, rather than unthinkingly losing his temper, he takes a mental breath and chooses a response that is likely to elicit the most useful outcome. He might take a manager-as-coach approach, and ask his team member to come up with ideas on how to resolve the problem and avoid it recurring. This capacity to self-regulate (otherwise knows as having strong willpower) is a hallmark of great leaders.

This works fine most of the time, but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve not behaved as well as we would have liked. We’ve lost our cool with the kids, or been tired and made an ill-considered comment at work, and that little voice in our heads says: “Why did I just do that? That’s not how I’d like to behave.”

There are many useful models for explaining this. The Myers Briggs Type Inventory describes it as being ‘in the grip’ of our inferior function. That is, under great, sustained stress people will sometimes start behaving in ways that are completely opposite to their normal personality. For example, in extremis, an outgoing and gregarious person might suddenly completely withdraw and be unable to see any good in the world. It’s as if the ‘normal’ them just disappeared and was replaced by someone else.

In a leadership context, this behavior can be extremely damaging, because as noted above, every interaction we have is ‘on the record’. And the more senior the executive, the higher the stakes, because leadership impacts are amplified. If the CEO walks into the office in an obviously bad mood, this can impact the entire organisation, not just that day, but for long afterwards.

So why does this ‘failure’ of willpower happen? Roy Baumeister, one of the pioneers of social psychology, did extensive research into this question, and coined the term ego depletion to describe it. He proved that our capacity to regulate our own behavior is finite.

Imagine willpower as a muscle. If we use that muscle for an extended period of time, it gets tired and eventually can’t function effectively. That’s what is happening when you’ve had a long, tough week and find yourself snapping at your family over relatively minor things. Your self-regulatory batteries are run down and need to recharge. This process is not just psychological. It’s physiological. Your willpower is literally, physically exhausted (Beaumeister found this to be closely tied to a drop in glucose levels in the blood).

On the positive side, just like a muscle, the more you exercise your willpower, the stronger it will grow. Not only this, but the research has shown that exercising self-regulation in one area of your life will increase your capacity to self regulate in others. For example, I find that keeping fit allows me to focus more intensely and for longer periods when I coach.

The key is not to ignore ego depletion or try to ‘will it away’. We all have our limits, and when they are reached our ability to self regulate degrades. Instead of chiding yourself for a perceived ‘lack of willpower’, it is more useful to think of ways to mitigate against ego depletion and its consequences.

For example, many people find they are at their ‘best’ first thing in the morning. If that’s you, manage your schedule so that you tackle the hardest and most important tasks first up, and leave the more routine work for the end of the day. Eating healthy snacks throughout the day can help maintain our blood sugar levels, which in turn will help maintain levels of willpower.

One client knows from self-observation that every three months or so he needs to take a week off to recharge, so he schedules his vacations for right after the end of each quarter. He hits his sales numbers, then goes and sits on a beach with his family for a week, before returning to work fired-up and ready to start the cycle again.

Another technique is to break your major goals into a series of smaller ones and focus on those instead. For example, rather than thinking “I need to grow my division’s revenue by 6% this quarter” (which is a pretty tough thing to achieve before lunch!), pick a small step that takes you in that direction, and focus on doing that instead. For example, “I am going to pick up the phone right now and call that major customer.” Then do it. It’s far easier for your willpower to tackle a small task than face a large one. And you’d be amazed at what a difference just taking one small step can make to how you feel about achieving the larger goal. Try this:

Think of a major goal you’ve been struggling with. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how confident you are of achieving that goal. If the goal is genuinely daunting, you’ll probably rate yourself a two or three out of ten. Then think about one small action you can take that will move you toward achieving that goal. Then go ahead and take that small step. As soon as you’ve completed it, re-rate yourself on the same scale. Even though the action was small, you’ll probably find you’ve improved a point or two. Then think of the next small step, and do that. Pretty soon the daunting task will seem eminently doable.

There are many different techniques that we can use to mitigate against depleted willpower. Getting enough sleep, eating better, taking time during the day or over the weekend to ‘switch off’ and recharge can all help. And be realistic about when you are likely to perform at your best. 4pm on a Friday afternoon is not the time to try and pitch a new project: you’ll be tired and your audience will have their minds elsewhere.

Whatever approaches we choose to take, the key is to be conscious of our levels of self-regulation, because when our willpower is run down, we are at the greatest risk of letting ourselves down, too.

One of my clients has a fantastic plaque on his desk. It reads: ‘This conversation is on the record.’ When I asked him about it, he said “It’s there to remind me that as a leader, everything I say and do has an impact on those around me. It’s important that I model the behaviours and values I expect from my team.”

He tries to calibrate his actions not just based on his own needs, but based on the needs of those around him and the example he wants to set. If one of his team drops the ball, rather than unthinkingly losing his temper, he takes a mental breath and chooses a response that is likely to elicit the most useful outcome. He might take a manager-as-coach approach, and ask his team member to come up with ideas on how to resolve the problem and avoid it recurring. This capacity to self-regulate (otherwise knows as having strong willpower) is a hallmark of great leaders.

This works fine most of the time, but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve not behaved as well as we would have liked. We’ve lost our cool with the kids, or been tired and made an ill-considered comment at work, and that little voice in our heads says: “Why did I just do that? That’s not how I’d like to behave.”

There are many useful models for explaining this. The Myers Briggs Type Inventory describes it as being ‘in the grip’ of our inferior function. That is, under great, sustained stress people will sometimes start behaving in ways that are completely opposite to their normal personality. For example, in extremis, an outgoing and gregarious person might suddenly completely withdraw and be unable to see any good in the world. It’s as if the ‘normal’ them just disappeared and was replaced by someone else.

In a leadership context, this behavior can be extremely damaging, because as noted above, every interaction we have is ‘on the record’. And the more senior the executive, the higher the stakes, because leadership impacts are amplified. If the CEO walks into the office in an obviously bad mood, this can impact the entire organisation, not just that day, but for long afterwards.

So why does this ‘failure’ of willpower happen? Roy Baumeister, one of the pioneers of social psychology, did extensive research into this question, and coined the term ego depletion to describe it. He proved that our capacity to regulate our own behavior is finite.

Imagine willpower as a muscle. If we use that muscle for an extended period of time, it gets tired and eventually can’t function effectively. That’s what is happening when you’ve had a long, tough week and find yourself snapping at your family over relatively minor things. Your self-regulatory batteries are run down and need to recharge. This process is not just psychological. It’s physiological. Your willpower is literally, physically exhausted (Beaumeister found this to be closely tied to a drop in glucose levels in the blood).

On the positive side, just like a muscle, the more you exercise your willpower, the stronger it will grow. Not only this, but the research has shown that exercising self-regulation in one area of your life will increase your capacity to self regulate in others. For example, I find that keeping fit allows me to focus more intensely and for longer periods when I coach.

The key is not to ignore ego depletion or try to ‘will it away’. We all have our limits, and when they are reached our ability to self regulate degrades. Instead of chiding yourself for a perceived ‘lack of willpower’, it is more useful to think of ways to mitigate against ego depletion and its consequences.

For example, many people find they are at their ‘best’ first thing in the morning. If that’s you, manage your schedule so that you tackle the hardest and most important tasks first up, and leave the more routine work for the end of the day. Eating healthy snacks throughout the day can help maintain our blood sugar levels, which in turn will help maintain levels of willpower.

One client knows from self-observation that every three months or so he needs to take a week off to recharge, so he schedules his vacations for right after the end of each quarter. He hits his sales numbers, then goes and sits on a beach with his family for a week, before returning to work fired-up and ready to start the cycle again.

Another technique is to break your major goals into a series of smaller ones and focus on those instead. For example, rather than thinking “I need to grow my division’s revenue by 6% this quarter” (which is a pretty tough thing to achieve before lunch!), pick a small step that takes you in that direction, and focus on doing that instead. For example, “I am going to pick up the phone right now and call that major customer.” Then do it. It’s far easier for your willpower to tackle a small task than face a large one. And you’d be amazed at what a difference just taking one small step can make to how you feel about achieving the larger goal. Try this:

Think of a major goal you’ve been struggling with. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how confident you are of achieving that goal. If the goal is genuinely daunting, you’ll probably rate yourself a two or three out of ten. Then think about one small action you can take that will move you toward achieving that goal. Then go ahead and take that small step. As soon as you’ve completed it, re-rate yourself on the same scale. Even though the action was small, you’ll probably find you’ve improved a point or two. Then think of the next small step, and do that. Pretty soon the daunting task will seem eminently doable.

There are many different techniques that we can use to mitigate against depleted willpower. Getting enough sleep, eating better, taking time during the day or over the weekend to ‘switch off’ and recharge can all help. And be realistic about when you are likely to perform at your best. 4pm on a Friday afternoon is not the time to try and pitch a new project: you’ll be tired and your audience will have their minds elsewhere.

Whatever approaches we choose to take, the key is to be conscious of our levels of self-regulation, because when our willpower is run down, we are at the greatest risk of letting ourselves down, too.