Posts Tagged ‘Tierney’

Willpower Wrap Up

April 20, 2017

This is the final post on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  The title says the greatest human strength, but it could be called the greatest human weakness as most of us not only fail to adequately foster willpower, but we also fail to make use of its potential. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been “Willpower:  Discovering the Greatest Human Potential.”

The book also discusses how Eric Clapton and Mary Karr finally managed to stop drinking.  The exploits of David Blaine, who is perhaps the most famous current exploiter of willpower are described along with his methods for accomplishing them.  However, Henry Morton Stanley makes Blaine look like a wuss when it comes to willpower.  Stanley became famous by finding a Scottish Missionary in the deepest parts of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  Stanley made many trips into the wilds of Africa and encountered conditions that severely challenged his willpower.  But he never broke.  He said, “Self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder.”

HM’s only complaint with the book is that it does not discuss the relevance of meditation and mindfulness.  HM finds meditation to be a good technique for restoring willpower.  And mindfulness keeps the objectives of willpower in the mind and assists in monitoring progress.  Fortunately, readers of the healthy memory blog have many posts on both meditation and mindfulness.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Additional Willpower Strategies

April 19, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  The power of positive procrastination is another source of willpower.  The “I’ll have it later” trick is an example of positive procrastination.  At least you’re delaying the temptation.  And you might eventually forget about the temptation completely.

Another strategy is the nothing alternative courtesy of Raymond Chandler.  Chandler’s system for writing detective stories was to set aside at least four hours a day for his job, writing.  He did this methodically every day.  In the morning he would wait for inspiration.  When it came, he wrote.  If it didn’t come he would do nothing the entire four hours.  The authors write that the nothing alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task.  You just might become bored doing nothing and start doing the desired task.  They key is not to do something else unless you strategically arrange the task as Robert Benchley did (see the first blog in this series, “Willpower:  Discovering the Greatest Human Strength).

The authors call the nothing alternative an offensive strategy.  Offensive strategies for not spending money would be to never carry more cash than you intend to spend, and to never carry a credit card unless it was for a predetermined purchase.  Precommitment is the ultimate offensive weapon.  Buy junk food in small packages or keep them out of the kitchen altogether.  Plan meals by the week, rather than on the spur of the moment.  Set up automatic payroll deductions, IRAs, and 401k plans.

Keeping track is another strategy .  Monitoring is crucial for any kind of plan you make—and it can even work if you don’t have a plan at all.  Weighing yourself every day or keeping a food diary can help you lose weight, just as tracking your purchases can help you spend less.  You can use technology to assist you in keeping track.

An especially important strategy is to reward often.  When you set a goal, set a reward for reaching it.  The authors write that we should steadily award ourselves for successes along the way.  Look for ways to reward yourself along the way to success prior to the big reward when the goal is reached.

Willpower Strategies

April 18, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Willpower is constrained by  the availability of energy sources.  One of these is glucose, which is burned up in activities.  The other is mental energy.   Exerting willpower deletes this source, irrespective of the reason for needing willpower.  Consequently strategies are required for utilizing this resource to best advantage.  One strategy is to pick our battles.  Although we can’t control or predict the stresses that come into our lives, we can use the calm periods or peaceful moments to plan an offense such as starting an exercise program, learning a new skill, quitting smoking, reducing drinking, making one or two lasting changes to a diet.  These are all best done during times of relatively low demand, when we can allocate much of our will power to the task.  And we would want to address this tasks individually, one at a time.  Aiming for huge and quick transformations will backfire if they seem impossible.  So only address the possible.

The authors counsel us when budgeting our time, not to give drudgery more than its necessary share.  They tell us to remember Parkinson’s Law:  Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.  We need to set firm time limits for tedious tasks.  If it is a large task it might need to be addressed on different dates.  Only try to do what is realistic.

To-do-lists are good for organizing time and for making sure certain tasks are completed by a certain time.  The authors realize that some readers might not feel like drawing one up because this sounds dreary and off-putting.  So they suggest of thinking of it as a to-don’t list.  This is a list of things that we don’t have to worry about once we write them down.  Making a specific plan mollifies our unconscious minds.  We need to plan the specific next step to take; what to do, whom to contact, how to do it (in person? by phone? by e-mail?)If we can also plan specifically when and where to do it, so much the better, but that’s not essential.  Our unconscious mind can relax as long as we’ve decided what to do and put it on the list.

Whenever we set a goal, we need to be aware of the planning fallacy.  This affects everyone from young students to experienced executives (who continue to fall prey to this fallacy).  This fallacy has been extensively documented and replicated.  An example provided in the book is one by psychologist Roger Bueller and his colleagues.  They asked collegeseniors working on their honors theses to predict when they would probably finish, along with best-case and worst-case scenarios.  On average, the students predicted it would take thirty-four days to finish, but in fact it took them fifty-six days.  Not even half the students finished by they worst-case predicted date.

The authors note that self-control will be most effective if we take basic care of our bodies, starting with diet and sleep.   We need to get enough healthy food on a regular basis so that our mind has adequate energy.  And it is good to begin the day with a healthy breakfast.  The authors write that sleep is probably even more important than food:  The more researchers study sleep deprivation the more nasty effects they keep discovering.  Coffee in the morning is not an adequate substitute for sleeping until our bodies wake up on their own because it has gotten enough rest.  They write,”The old advice that  things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion.  A rested will is a stronger will.”

It seems that most schedules for school and work are oblivious of the importance of adequate sleep and breakfast.  This forces people to shortchange themselves on sleep and breakfast.  In turn, these shortages result in inferior performance in both school and work.  Seriously attention needs to be paid to this problem.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Smoking and Alcoholism

April 17, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Just like dieting, quitting smoking requires your maximum willpower.  So it should be the lone habit you’re trying to rid yourself of.  One research program found that a written contract committing to temporarily stop smoking was nearly 40% more likely than a control group to be nicotine free after a year.  Given an incentive to temporarily restrain their smoking, they were more likely to make a lasting change in their lives.  What began as a recommitment turned into something permanent and more valuable:  a habit.

If you can’t bring your self to quit smoking, try cutting down to two or three cigarettes per day.  This should have health benefits plus it puts you closer to quitting smoking altogether.

Smoking cigarettes had long been regarded as a personal physical compulsion due to overwhelming  impulses in the smoker’s brain and body.  That belief was challenged  in 2008 by an article in the “New England Journal of Medicine” by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that quitting smoking seems to spread through social networks.  They fond that kicking the habit seemed to be contagious.  If a member of a married couple quit smoking, the odds of the other spouse quitting increased dramatically.  The odds also increased if a brother, sister or friend quit.  Even coworkers had a substantial effect as long as the people worked together in a fairly small firm.  Generally speaking, smokers who live mainly among nonsmokers tend to have high rates of quitting, indicating the power of social influence and the social support for quitting.

Religions provide large social networks that can assist in quitting smoking.  Of course, religious people are less likely to smoke in the first place, but both new converts along with committed smokers have a good social support network for quitting.  Baumeister and Tierney  also have high praise for Alcoholics Anonymous.  Although they seem to be somewhat skeptical of the method, as good scientists they cannot argue with the results of AA.  AA does not provide an automatic cure.  Rather, it assists in developing the personal discipline using willpower to overcome alcohol abuse.

Smoking and Alcoholism are serious problems and they should be dealt with individually.   Limited willpower should be focused on each separately.

The Perfect Storm of Dieting

April 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest  Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   Some of the content will be related plus a few contributions from this blog’s author.

Baumeister and John Tierney write, “If you’re serious about controlling your weight, you need the discipline to follow these three rules:

Never go on a diet.
Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food.
Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.

The reason for these rules can be attributed to “The Dieter’s Catch-22.”
In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

Oprah Winfree, along with the experience of others, and perhaps even your personal experience should be proof that diets do not work in the long term.  Although there may be short term effects, eventually we all seem to be able to find that weight that we thought we had lost.

In one experiment, using both dieters and non dieters, the participants arrived at the what researchers call a “food-deprived state.”   In other words they were hungry.  They had not eaten for several hours.  Some were given a small milkshake to take the edge off; others drank two giant milkshakes with enough calories to leave a normal person feeling stuffed.  Then both groups, along with other subjects who hadn’t even given any kind of milkshake, were asked to serve as food tasters.  Each one sat in a private cubicle with several bowls of crackers and cookies and a rating form.  As these people recorded their ratings, they could eat as many from  from each bowl as they wanted and if they finished them all, they could just tell themselves they were doing a thorough job as food testers.  Of course, their ratings didn’t matter.  The researchers were just interested inn how many cookies and crackers they ate, and how the dieters in the group compared with people who were not on a diet.

The non dieters reacted as expected.  Those who had just drunk two giant milkshakes nibbled at the crackers and quickly filled out their ratings.  Those who had drunk the small milkshake ate more crackers.  And those who were still hungry after not eating for hours went on to chomp through the better part of the cookies and crackers.

However, the dieters reacted in the opposite pattern.  The ones who had downed the giant milkshakes actually ate more cookies and crackers than the ones who’d had nothing to eat for hours.    These results have been replicated.  Finally the researchers began to see why self-control in eating can fail even amount people who are carefully regulating themselves.  The researchers gave this phenomenon the scientific term, counterregulaory eating, but this is commonly referred to as the what-the-hell effect.  So once dieters go off their diet they tend to say what-the-hell and behave like sailors on leave.

The key to successful dieting can be attributed to Mark Twain who wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “To promise not do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.”

Research has shown the effectiveness of a postponement strategy.  When offered something tempting, rather than denying it, tell yourself that you will enjoy it sometime later.  Apparently it takes less will power to postpone something rather then to deny it.  So rather than a “what the hell” effect,” there can be an “I never managed to get around to it effect.”

The chapter concludes, “So when it comes to food never say never.  When the dessert cart arrives, don’t gaze longingly at forbidden treats.  Know that you will eat them eventually, but just not tonight.”

Weight loss goals should be modest.  And all your willpower needs to be devoted to them.  Large weight losses rarely last.

The following strategies were not in the book, but HM finds them promising.
The book does mention trying to keep track of calories.  This can have the benefit of slowing down your eating.  And the slowing down itself can be quite effective.  Take time to savor each bite of food.  This can also increase your enjoyment of the meal as well as helping your lose weight.

Another tactic is to switch diets for a limited amount of time.  For example, you might become a vegetarian for a week.  This is a variant of the postponement strategy.  You postpone your regular food.  Over a period of a week you are filling up on new food.  And over this period, you might start to enjoy some foods.  You can do this periodically gradually increasing the length of time on the new diet.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Willpower 101, First Lesson, Know Your Limits

April 15, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in he book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  It is important to reiterate that your supply of willpower is limited, and you use this same resource for many different things.  Throughout the day you do many things that deplete your willpower of which you are likely unaware.  One activity that definitely depletes willpower is making decisions.  Practically nobody is aware of just how tiring it is to decide.  Even apparently simple decisions such as choosing what to have for dinner depletes willpower..  But deciding where to go on vacation, whom to hire, or where to look for a new job, which purchases to make and how much to spend are all decisions that deplete willpower.

Also remember that what matters is the exertion and not the outcome.  If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you have depleted your willpower regardless of the result.  You even use up willpower when you partake in indulgences that don’t appeal to you.  Forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do at the moment, be it chugging tequila, having sex, or smoking a cigar, depletes your willpower.

Unfortunately there is no obvious “feeling” of depletion, so you need to watch yourself for subtle, easily misinterpreted signs.  For example:  Do things seem to bother you more than they should?  Has the volume somehow been turned up on your life so that things are felt more strongly than usual?  Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things?  Are you more than usually reluctant to make a decision to exert yourself mentally or physically?  When you notice these feelings, then review the last few hours and see if it seems likely likely that you have depleted your will power?

Although your supply of willpower is limited, it is obvious it can be replenished.  Obviously, a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast should restore your willpower.  But during the day pleasant down time should also do some replenishing.   There is another activity that HM strongly recommends, and that is meditation.  HM finds meditation most definitely to be restorative.  It is unfortunately that Baumeister and Tierney do not have meditation play a more central role.  It is mentioned that meditation rituals are a “kind of anaerobic workout for self control.”  And that “Meditation activates the same brain centers used for self-regulation.”  HM understand why they do not emphasize meditation.  They are conscientious researchers who want controlled research on the topic.  Although HM understands why they do not emphasize meditation, he criticizes their not conducting obvious research on the topic.  HM can, at least, provide his recommendation on the basis of his personal experience.  And that is that, perhaps apart from a good sound night’s sleep, meditation is the most restorative activity.  A short period, a half hour or less, of effective meditation has remarkable restorative powers.  (Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts.  Additional posts can be found by entering “meditation”  or “mindfulness”)

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Eat (and Sleep) Your Way to Willpower

April 14, 2017

This post is based on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Glucose depletion can turn the most charming companion into a monster.  The advice of eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly when you’re  physically or mentally stressed.  If you have a test, an important meeting, or a vital project, don’t take it on without glucose.  Don’t thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner.

Don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight.  If you’re trying to quit smoking, don’t try quitting while your also on a diet.  You might even consider adding some calories, because part of what seems to be a craving for a cigarette may actually be a craving for food once you’re no longer suppressing your appetite with nicotine.  When sugar tablets were given to smokers trying to quite, sometimes the extra glucose has led to higher rates of success, particularly when the sugar tablets were combined with other therapies such as the nicotine patch.

When you eat, go for the slow burn,  The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose, but at different rates.  Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index.  Included here are starchy carbohydrates like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and plenty of offerings on snack racks and fast-food counters.   Eating them produces boom-and-bust cycles, leaving you short on glucose and self-control, and too often unable to resist the body’s craving for quick hits of starch and sugar from doughnuts and candy.

To maintain steady self-control, we’re  better off eating foods with a low glycemic index.  Included here are most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good” fats.

When you’re sick, save your glucose for your immune system.  Before driving to work when you’re sick consider this:  Driving a car with a bad cold has been found to be even more dangerous than driving when mildly intoxicated.  That’s because your immune system  is using so much of your glucose to fight the cold that there’s not enough left for the brain.

Sleep when your are tired.  We adults routinely shortchange ourselves on sleep with the result of less self control.  By resting we reduce the body’s demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream.  Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control, and, over the long term, a higher risk of diabetes.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

April 13, 2017

The  immediately preceding post, Irresistible described the increasing addictive dangers of technology.  This and the immediately following posts will outline the solution.  That solution is willpower, and is covered in detail in a book with the title of this post  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   In the concluding chapter of this book they write that they’re still bullish on the future of self-control, at both the personal and social levels.  And they concede that temptations are getting more sophisticated, but so are the tools for resisting them.

Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” “The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.  Most personal problems, both personal and social, center on the failure of self-control:  compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.  Poor self-control correlates with practically every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, and ending up in prisons.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system.  Ultimately, self-control let’s you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.

There are two important facts to understand about willpower.  There is a biological constraint on willpower.  When glucose levels are low, willpower declines.  And there is an additional constraint on willpower that is psychological.   There is a limited supply of willpower, and exercising willpower depletes this limited supply.  We use the same resource for doing different things.  This is why it is pointless to have many New Year’s Eve resolutions.  The fewer you have, the less likely any of them will be successful.  In previous healthy memory posts the recommendation was to have, at most, two resolutions.  One should be fairly easy, so at least there will be one victory, and the other should be challenging so that the success of that resolution would be grounds for cheering.  But do them in succession, say easy first, then difficult, rather than trying to do them both at the same time.

Many strategies and techniques for effectively using one’s willpower that are based on sound research are presented in the book.  One of them is positive procrastination.  For example, you might want to  have some tasty treat, but you tell yourself to procrastinate, to have it sometime later.  There is also a humorous example provided by  Robert Benchley, my favorite humorist.  In one of his essays he writes that he is often asked how he manages to accomplish so much work, given that he appears to be so dissipated.  He explained how he could summon the discipline to read a scientific article about tropical fish, build a bookshelf, arrange books on said shelf, and write an answer to a friend’s letter that had been sitting in a pile on his desk for twenty years.  All he had to do was to draw up a to-do list for the week and put these tasks above his top priority—his job of writing an article.  He wrote, “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one.  The psychological principal  is this:  anyone can do any amount of work, provided that it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”  I encourage readers to look up Robert Benchley on the Wikipedia.  Much of his work is still available on

The following is from the concluding chapter of Willpower.  “People with stronger willpower are more altruistic.  “They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go.  Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today.  Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”

You are strongly encouraged to read Willpower even though the following posts will be based on his book about this important topic, they can only scratch the surface.  Erick Clapton, Mary Karr, David Blaine, and Henry Morton Stanley. Should you not know Henry Morton Stanley, he is famous for finding a Scottish missionary in the wilds of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  He is a legendary figure in willpower.  He makes David Blaine look like a wuss.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.