Monday, December 7, 2015


I've been seeing this idea come up over and over recently:  the topic of self-control, and often of lack-thereof.
In addition, this past week I had three friends who separately ran into serious problems with other people -- in all three cases, the other person is someone who is (a) related to them, (b) did something pretty awful that was dangerous/illegal/hurtful and that (c) betrayed my friends, and (d) left my friends in a quandary about what the relationship is going to look like in the future.   There's a serious lack of willpower involved in the person who did the hurting, but because of that, they've created willpower problems for my friends.  That is, there's not a lot of composure and control to tap into, for my friends who are reeling from the revelation of recent injuries.  It's not "decision fatigue" they're going through:  it's "decision collapse".

On Wednesday and Thursday, when I was recovering from my fast, I decided to recuperate both physically and intellectually by reading Willpower, a book by psychologists Bauermeister and Tierney.  (The book has the encouraging subtitle, "Recovering the Greatest Human Strength"; now, who wouldn't want that?)

It's a really good read: the writing is engaging, the stories they choose are fun and compelling, and there's good science woven throughout.  Since I've read a lot of other pop-psychology books, there was a lot in this book that wasn't new to me (but I don't mind that -- I still enjoyed reading it a lot).  But some of this stuff was good to add to my repertoire of self- and other-knowledge.

Self-knowledge.  There aren't really obvious signs that your store of willpower is being depleted.  You don't start sweating, or shivering, or seeing double, or have trouble breathing.  So it's really, really hard for people to tell when they're getting to the point of making stupid choices, or giving up too early, or being unable to navigate a complex decision.  There are subtle signs, however:  everything seems more intense.  That chocolate bar that ordinarily seems merely alluring; now it's singing to you.  That sad song that comes on the radio makes you tear up.  The car that cuts in front of you enrages you.  (Or, I'd add, your husband says he'll do the dishes and then doesn't, and you think that's a sign that the marriage is over.  Maybe THAT's a sign that you're not thinking entirely with your full brain power).

Food.  I've heard a bunch of people talk about "decision fatigue" -- that as you get tired from the day's activities, you have less and less of a brain for making good decisions.  The blurbs I've seen about this say, "keep a candy bar in your glove compartment, and eat it before you go shopping!"  -- the idea being, that with food in your system, you'll be less likely to make unhealthy purchases that you'll regret later.

But while the authors do talk about how glucose (sugar) helped people in their lab experiments make good decisions or persist through uncomfortable situations, the authors criticized that sugar brings you up and then lets you crash worse.  They emphasized a healthy diet, with protein and complex carbohydrates.  Take care of yourself, in other words, and you'll better conserve your wells of self-control.

Unrelated activities use the same reservoir.  Fighting temptation depletes your willpower (even if you give in).  Experiencing emotion -- or fighting a display of emotion -- depletes your willpower (so being polite to a jerk or staying alert during a boring meeting or comforting a grieving friend is going to wear you down a bit).  Making choices depletes your willpower, whether it's choosing a lunch option from a long menu, or choosing which item on your to-do list to do next, or choosing whether you ought to forgive someone or move out.

Wait.  For my friends who'd been sideswiped by loved ones, the whole question of "what do I do?" was tangled in the briars of hurt and betrayal they'd just been confronted with.  And, at least for two of them, I pointed out that they didn't have to decide now:  that they weren't in a good state to make decisions right now.  They could give themselves permission to find a safe space, to take a bit of time (a day, a week) and make a decision later.  And that seemed to be one of the most comforting things I said, to remind my friends that they didn't have to suffer the problem and solve the problem in the same instant.


  1. Hmmm. I should probably check Willpower out! Sounds really good :)

  2. Honestly I didn't enjoy reading the book (I disagreed with some of the science presented early on which I think tainted it for me...) but I love when others summarize the book and what they got from it. There is some really good stuff in there, and the whole thing about "unrelated activities using the same reservoir" led to some changes in my life ( I would have trouble focusing at work after challenging mornings spent TRYING not to yell at my kids or snap at husband. So when I have major deadlines I go to work super early and avoid that drain!)

    1. It'd be interesting to know what you disagreed with. In general, I find I have to thread my way through these pop-science books, because of the obvious over-simplifications or sweeping generalizations.

      It was very good to read while I was just sitting still and resting up -- no pressure to read fast or make immediate life changes because of this.