Don’t depend on willpower

Sometimes change is easy; perhaps you or someone you know changed or started a new habit and found it straightforward. But, it’s not the typical path. We might decide to eat differently, maybe following the 16/8 fasting approach we’ve heard about, where you eat within an 8-hour window (and so not eat for 16 hours), deciding, for example, that you won’t eat after 7.30pm or before 11.30am.

In the moment we make the decision, we’re healthy, not hungry, and the evidence seems to suggest it’s worth trying this fasting approach, so it’s an easy decision.

The first day, buoyed with enthusiasm, we follow the approach. The next day, Friday, we’re watching our favourite TV show at 9pm, the one where we usually have a glass of wine, or our favourite snack… and we’re faced with the reality of craving. Aghh, I really want that snack and come on, it is Friday, and so the craving wins. And that’s the end of this silly 16/8 fasting lark.

The challenge is not just establishing a new habit; it’s dealing with all the existing ones! We often put too much trust in our willpower which is often not up to the job. To say this isn’t to suggest that any of us is weak. In our example, the combination of habit, emotion and biology are all rooting for the wrong side, and willpower is easily overwhelmed.

Those with the best results know not to rely on willpower. What we need are strategies! Firstly, anticipate the craving (or remember it from the past), and decide what to do when it inevitably comes — when faced with the craving, what will you do?

The strategies don’t have to be complex or sophisticated, how one or more of:

  • Drink water – expanding the stomach can reduce hunger perception
  • Clean your teeth – who wants to spoil that minty freshness
  • Sit in a different seat – the trigger leading to craving may depend on several time and place elements coming together
  • Remove the snacks – don’t buy them, hide them, lock them up, …
  • Allow snacks once per week, e.g. only on Fridays
  • Get support from family, friends, a coach, or community
  • Watch a different program

These examples may or may not work for you, the key is to use strategies that don’t leave you at the whim of willpower.

If you find change difficult, then welcome to club human. Disrupting established patterns in our lives, even when we know they are unhelpful patterns, can include a mix of physical and mental obstacles that make change messy.

So, if you’re using the new year as an opportunity to initiate change, go for it, but take along a bag of strategies to support you along the way.

Mindfulness is not… about stopping your mind thinking

Perhaps you’ve heard someone suggest ‘don’t think about pink elephants,’ or some such example in order to demonstrate how tricky it can be to not think about something that has just been suggested.  This paradox was first written about by a group of research psychologist’s, led by Daniel Wegner, in a 1987 paper Paradoxical effects of thought suppression in what have come to be known as the ‘White Bear’ experiments.  After further study, Prof. Wegner proposed the theory of ironic processes of mental control, describing the ironic or paradoxical effects of thought suppression.

The super summary of the paradox is that the more you try not to think about something, particularly if there is associated emotion or anxiety, the more your mind brings your attention back to the thought – it’s called a rebound effect.  In teaching mindfulness, I often describe this phenomenon as, trying to push away unwanted thoughts (or feelings) gives them the energy to push back.  Sometimes you can distract yourself enough that the thoughts seem to go away, but usually, they’re waiting for the next moment in which to jump out on you again.

If during a mindful meditation practice you find yourself trying to push away thoughts, or trying to ‘stop thinking,’ by dragging your awareness back to, say, your body breathing, there’s a good chance you’ll also find yourself frustrated by rebounding.

So, the first useful realisation is simply, don’t try to stop your mind thinking about something, and indeed mindfulness meditation is not about stopping your mind from thinking.  So, what is it about?

A much more productive approach is to be able to watch your mind thinking, without being caught up in the thoughts.  This detachment or more formally, meta-cognition, takes some practice (that’s why we call it mindfulness ‘practice’), but it can have surprisingly helpful results.

In a typical concentration practice, like watching your body breathing, the intention is to bring your focus and awareness to the chosen anchor (the breath in this case).  But, what do you do if you’re constantly interrupted with ‘thinking’?  Well, firstly, recognise that this is a normal process of our mind – it’s what our thinking mind is designed to do, so as far as possible remain objective, curious or relaxed about it.

As soon as you notice your attention has been snagged by some thought, you can feel pleased that you’re back in the present moment, aware of the thinking you’ve just been engaged in.  Next you might acknowledge the thought by labelling or describing it (e.g. ‘ahh, that’s planning again’), and then choose whether to stay with the thought or come back to your breath.  If you choose to come back to your breath, you’re allowing the thought to go.  And, although this might sound like we’re stopping the thought – the difference between ‘trying to stop it’ and acknowledging it and choosing a different focal point, is in practice, very different.

We’re allowing and accepting both that our mind thinks, and that our attention will be snagged by that thinking.  This gentler approach ultimately means we react differently to the thoughts. In fact, we react less to the thoughts, which is less likely to trigger the ironic processes, and so fewer thoughts snag our awareness.  Overall, by not trying to stop the thinking, we get more choice over where we place our attention.

Boosting Self-Control


In the last of my current series on self-control, let’s focus on how to boost it.  Fortunately, there appears to be several ways to manipulate or improve ones self-control.  The first is perhaps the most obvious…


It’s not terribly surprising that the more motivated you are do something, the stronger your chances of actually doing it.  If you decide at work that you’ll follow-up on your actions straight after every meeting, rather than waiting for them to build up, a recent opportunity for promotion (or indeed, for demotion) is likely to increase your chances of actually doing it, over simply deciding that it’s a good idea.

Doing some form of regular exercise is a common challenge. The discipline needed to regularly perform your new exercise regime needs to last long enough for the regime to become part of your daily routine.  Whereas we all know that exercise is good for us, often that isn’t motivation enough.  But, what if you are doing it for someone else?  What if you want to stay healthy in order to take care of your family, perhaps to be around long enough to see your children make good lives for themselves?  Each time you face a struggle to exercise, remember who you’re doing it for.

Related to motivation is seeing the big picture.  In the moment back at work where you’re faced with checking your email or following up on those meeting actions, the email might be the easy option.  But, considering the big picture: when will you do the follow-up, what’s the impact on you or your team of doing the follow-up, how will you feel at the end of week if these actions are out of the way, what do they mean to your career, etc..  Seeing the big picture, can give you the jolt of motivation you need, to stick to your promise to complete your actions straight after the meeting.

Whatever your approach, considering and even manipulating your motivation can be a useful tool to fight the urge for instant gratification over the longer term good.


I briefly covered this in “Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?Roy Baumeister and colleagues created the analogy of a muscle to self-control strength.  One thing we know about muscles is that when they work they use energy, and at some point you have to stop and eat to refuel.

Just like the Judges making parole decisions (“Even Judges decision making ability fades”), making hard decisions often requires self-control, to properly examine all the options and avoid procrastination, which burns energy, just like a muscle.  So, after using it for a while, you need to take a break and refuel your energy reserves before exercising it again.

I like the idea that the original experiments investing self-control and energy, used Lemonade as the fuel – sweetened with either sugar (giving an energy boost) or an artificial sweetener (no energy boost).


Continuing the muscle analogy, you can build strength through exercise practice.  For example, Megan Oaten and Ken Chang, researchers in Australia showed how practicing self-control in money management, or regular exercise or by students following a structured study program, could build self-control strength.  Following one structured approach (e.g. monitoring finances), built their self-control muscle such that it benefited other areas of their life – for example the students following the study program consumed less alcohol and caffeine, smoked less, increased healthy eating, monitored their finances, and it even helped them do more household chores!

The self-control exercise doesn’t have to be terribly meaningful.  Here are some of the tasks that have been used to exercise and build self-control: setting yourself the task of sitting up straight, not using slang words, using a non-dominant hand for regular tasks like cleaning your teeth and regularly practicing the stroop test.

One of tips that comes out of the many studies considers that, because self-control is both general (it’s the same self-control that helps you follow-up on boring actions, and go to the gym) and it depletes with constant use, you should only tackle one new self-control testing thing at a time.  If you want to start an exercise regime, don’t try and change your diet at the same time.  Working on one thing, will initially conserve your self-control strength for that one thing, and at the same time, will increase it’s strength. So once you’ve followed your new regime long enough for it to become a habit, you’ll be in a good position to take on a new, perhaps tougher, challenge.

Good luck boosting your self-control, remember it’s one of the most important, general strengths there is!

Be remarkable,

Beyond willpower to auto-pilot


So, we’ve seen that we have a finite reserve of willpower or self-control, and that it’s related to our energy levels, that even the most experienced decision makers run out of the self-control required to make decisions.  But also that strong self-control can leads to a more successful future!

Then I introduced Mark Richardson, who was able to stick to tough long term goals, leading him to the 2012 Ironman world championships.  So if it’s finite, and even the best struggle maintaining it, how on earth can it be used to achieve a 10 year goal, and ultimately a more successful future?

Major long term goals help set a direction, and you work in that direction bit by bit, day by day.  So, firstly, use your self-control to achieve the toughest tasks each day that will move your forward… before it runs out.  Or as Brian Tracy wrote about in Eat That Frog! if the first thing you do each day is eat a frog, it gets easier from then on.

Because self-control is an expensive activity, using up precious energy, wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid dipping into those limited reserves, particularly when doing something regularly like training for Ironman, or writing, or running quality meetings?  This is where our ability to adapt and learn, coupled with our brains natural desire to avoid expending excess energy come to our rescue.

Our brains have an adaptation mechanism we commonly call habit forming.  Simply summarised, repeated exposure to an activity in tandem with a trigger, like getting out of bed or preparing for a regular meeting, combine to form a habit – when I get up I put on my cycling gear, drink some water and go for a ride.

When you start doing your new desired activity, it’s hard.  It takes self-control, sometimes copious amounts.  But after a period of time – shorter if you really want to do the task, longer if you don’t – your brain adapts to the behaviour.  This adaptation removes some or all of the need to consciously drive yourself, a new habit is formed, you’re away on auto-pilot.

People with high self-control are more successful at forming good habits – they stick to their tasks long enough for the adaptation to occur.

So boosting your self-control muscle is worthwhile, and we’ll look at that next.

Be remarkable,

Ironman shows us what determination can achieve – what it takes to be remarkable

Ironman Hawaii Swim start

Mark Richardson at 46 years old, is married and continues to enjoy a successful career as a sales manager in a large software business.  He’s doing well, but that’s not what makes him remarkable.

In 2003, aged 37, he’d achieved a five year goal of competing in his first Ironman competition.  When he had set the goal for this race (back in 1997), the effects of concentrating on his career were showing not just in the pounds in his pocket, his weight was reaching a tipping point he knew had to change.

Being able to compete in an Ironman competition is a goal that few of us will attain, requiring the athlete to complete a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile cycle ride and to warm down competitors have to complete a full 26.2 mile marathon run. And let’s not forget it’s a competition – so not only are there no breaks in-between each of these individually gruelling activities, you’re also trying to catch the athlete ahead of you, or stay in front of the one who’s chasing.

As with any sport, but particularly in endurance, Ironman is more than a purely physical challenge…

  • There’s the obvious competitive angle – expend too much energy in holding your place on an uphill cycle challenge, or not trying quite as hard as you could have at the start of your swim (see the heading photo!), can have major consequences.
  • Then there’s hydration – drinking too much or too little, too soon or too late can be devastating.
  • Refuelling  – sugary drinks, natural high-energy foods, or high-tech glucose sachets, get it wrong and you’ll just fade away.
  • What about climate, particularly if you’re competing in a different country.

And alongside all of this, there’s the game going on in your head.  Evolutionary science would tell us that our bodies are designed to move, that the modern sedentary lifestyle is our downfall.  Walking a few miles a day and dragging back dinner is one thing, and Ironman is quite another.  Paula Newby-Fraser was a previous Ironman world champion, experienced, extraordinarily fit, doggedly determined, but she has also shown that even the best can get it wrong, captured in this incredible footage of the last mile of her race in Hawaii, 1995:

So, although Ironman is not the only extreme endurance sport (I’ve seen the blisters of a 250 mile desert challenge), it’s up there.  Back to where we started, Mark built his endurance sufficiently to compete in his first Ironman in 2003 – alone a remarkable feat.  But my fascination with Mark’s story comes not from his race endurance – it starts after that 2003 race. 

Finish low2Yes, remarkable achievement goes together with passion, positivity and purpose.  Your purpose might be as simple being able to afford your own home, be healthy enough to take care of your children or to change the world for the better – purpose is personal.  The point I want to highlight is that remarkable achievement takes a long-term commitment, an endurance of a different kind, continually drinking from your reserves of self-discipline.  The goal that Mark set for himself back in 2003 was to make it to the Ironman world championships within 10 years.

Remember, at the time he’d just completed his first Ironman, aged 37.  For most of us, competing in a single Ironman would be a challenge too far.  But he set the 10 year goal, and stayed doggedly with it.  He describes the goal as being like a self-cantering compass in life.  Helping him get up on cold, dark winter mornings to push out another 20 miles; through thousands of hours of training, competition and injury, day, week and year after year – that is remarkable.

In 2012, Mark found himself at the start line of an Ironman in Hawaii.  Almost ten years after setting the goal, he had qualified for and was competing in the Ironman World Championships… and yes, he finished, you can see him in the photo crossing the final finish line.  And true to form, he set himself another goal – to get on the winners podium for his age group, firstly at any race and secondly at the world championships (an improvement of 35 places).

So, how’s your determination, your self-control and ability to commit and stick to your plan over the long term?… Remarkable I hope.


Even Judges decision making ability fades


I never really thought of my decision making capacity as something that gets depleted by using it.  I’ve certainly experienced that ‘brain dead’ state where making decisions seems hard, but I’ve always associated that with simply being tired, and everything is hard when I’m tired (well, except sleeping).

But a better way of thinking about our capacity to make decisions, is that it’s like a muscle.  Exercising it helps to improve its capacity, and using it means it gets tired and needs recuperation.

In 2011 Shai Danzigera, Jonathan Levavb, and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa published research about judicial parole decisions after studying 1,112 rulings over 10 months.  These were experienced judges, used to making hard decisions that may have a profound effect on peoples lives.  But it seems even they suffer from decision making fatigue.

Apart from the details of case, the researchers knew the order and time the prisoner appeared in front of the parole board, along with their break times and the outcome.  They summarise the results in a very revealing graph:


The vertical axis shows the proportion of favourable decisions, a higher value means a higher proportion were given parole; along the bottom is the position or order of the hearing, and the small circles are food breaks – breakfast, late morning snack and lunch.

In summary – a prisoner seen just after a food break, has a much higher chance of being granted parole than a prisoner seen just before a break, even if their offense and record are very similar.  Judges are human, and even their decision making ability, as practiced as they are, depletes.  What does that mean for the rest of us?

Exercising our self control, making decisions or otherwise using up energy erodes our decision making capability. Being forced to make decisions in this state pushes us towards taking the easy or safe option (denying parole is a ‘safer’ option than allowing it) – and we often don’t realise it.

I’ve heard many times that good leaders have the ability to make fast decisive decisions.  Don’t let your ego fool you into that trap when your decision ‘muscle’ is tired. Good leaders make good decisions, and one of them might be to take a break!

Be remarkable,

P.S. I highly recommend the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success”, my inspiration for this post.

Marshmallows and your future

The Marshmallow Test

How can marshmallows possibly relate to your or my future?  If you’re unfamiliar with what has become a classic piece of research, the core experiment is brilliantly illustrated in a modern version recorded in the video.  It was originally devised by Walter Mischel and colleagues in the 1960’s to test the self-control of four year old children, and their ability to delay gratification – or specifically delay eating the marshmallow put in front in them while they were left alone for up to 20 minutes, in order to receive the reward of another marshmallow.  In other words, eat one now or wait and have two. 

The children involved in this simple test of willpower have now been studied in several follow-ups, and it proved to be surprisingly predictive of future success – including better education achievement, higher self-esteem, ability to cope with stress and mental health – and the follow-up continues as they age.  It’s one part of the puzzle that demonstrates why self-control is such a valuable strength.

Be remarkable, hang-in-there for two marshmallows,

Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?


What’s your pleasurable vice for which you restrict your consumption?  Mine is chocolate, well it’s one of them anyway – it’s always handy to have multiple options.  But perhaps the question ‘why does the chocolate win after a hard day?’ is just too simple – we’re hungry, chocolate has lots of calories, it’s a fast way to refuel, our brain urges us to eat it (oh, and it tastes great)!

Hmm… except I don’t think that’s the only explanation.  Perhaps we’re normally really good at restraining ourselves, restricting our intake, a paragon of self-control.  But sometimes, that willpower just goes out of the window – as if during our hard day we’ve used it all up.

In fact, that’s quite likely.  Researchers in the lab of Dr. Roy Baumeister & Dr. Dianne Tice discovered a number of things about self-control, including that we have a finite amount and once we’ve used it up, we need a break in order to rebuild it.

So, consider that hard day – perhaps you’ve successfully driven yourself to complete a project, tying yourself to your desk, resisting that chat at the coffee machine, staying later than usual, and then gifted with busy traffic on the way home.  Or the children are at home and it’s just been one of those days when you’ve had to exert your saintly parenting powers just a little too often.  You get to the kitchen, take a deep breath, and having thoroughly spent your finite self-control reserves you open the cupboard, only to be faced with your nemesis from the land of sugary vice.  We can all see who’s favourite to win this showdown.

Of course, controlling our sugar intake is an obvious challenge.  Some are a little better disguised.  Perhaps you’ve just had enough and you say something in a meeting that you really wish you hadn’t.  Or both you and your partner have had a challenging day, and that evening becomes one on which you tackle your gripes of domestic bliss in the guise of dirty dishes not being put in the dishwasher, and it blows up into a domestic storm.

I think firstly knowing that self-control fatigues with use, like a muscle, is handy.  Put the sugary vice in a place that takes a lot of effort to retrieve it – use the fatigue to your advantage.  Use your last vestiges of control to suggest a break in the meeting when you feel yourself on the edge of exploding.  And, watch a movie together and tackle the domestic bliss issues in the morning.

Oh yes, one of the other things Baumeister discovered about self-control was that it needs energy – the same kind that we expend during exercise and refill when we eat and rest.  Darn, as if the ‘eat well and exercise’ mantra needs any more props.  But there it is – yes the chocolate will provide the energy boost that may raise your level of self-control, just before it plummets as your pancreas kick-in to deal with the overdose and strip it away again, leaving you open to another round of sugary vice.

So approach mid-day chocolate with caution – perhaps I’ll smother a carrot with it and see how that works.

Be remarkable,

P.S. I highly recommend the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success”, my inspiration for this post.