I had a “What the heck?” moment recently when reading a book on willpower. I came across the line, “The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.” As my children might say, “Well, duh…” Of course, if we didn’t get ourselves into stressful situations, we could reduce stress.
But if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I think authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney have a good point. They were arguing that we should think about ways to set up our lives so that we have a realistic chance to succeed. “Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.”
The entire book is built around the premise that all of us—even the most successful—have a limited amount of willpower to expend every day and that we use the same resource for many different things. So it is important to think about how we can use our willpower to set ourselves up for success.
“Each day may start off with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, at least if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. But then all day things chip and nibble away at it….Consider some of the things that happen in a typical day. You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep. You put up with traffic frustrations. You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you or when a store clerk says ‘Just one second’ and then takes six minutes to get back to you. You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting. You postpone going to the bathroom. You make yourself take the first steps on a difficult project. You want to eat all the French fries on your lunch plate but you leave half of them there, or (after negotiating with yourself) almost half. You push yourself to go jogging, and while you jog you make yourself keep running until you finish your workout. The willpower you expended on each of these unrelated events depletes how much you have left for the others.”
If I put things off or set goals for myself that are unrealistic, pushing me into situations where I have to expend my stock of willpower, that’s not a recipe for success. Instead, I’ve increased my level of stress. However, Dutch researchers have shown that people with good self-control “mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.” People with good self-control generally have less stress.
“They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them. They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets. They play offense instead of defense.” (emphasis added)
Consider how you would (re)structure your life to avoid putting yourself in situations where self-control is an emergency rescue reaction. What changes would be necessary for you to play offense instead of defense?
Have a good week.
More to come…