Enhancing Willpower

To be completely free you must become a slave to a set of rules.

- Cicero

A muscle may be weak because it is exhausted, or weak for lack of exercise and training. Likewise, exhastion or lack of training may compromise your Willpower. The remedy depends upon the cause of the weakness:

  • When the cognitive resources required to exercise will are exhausted, the solution is rest. Sleep is particularly helpful. Indeed, self-regulation failure tends to escalate over the course of the day, becoming more likely and more frequent the longer the person has been sleep deprived.
    • Baumeister has also shown that after resources have been expended in self-regulation, a pleasant emotional experience will restore (to some extent) the Psyche’s capacity to regulate itself subsequently

  • When the weakness of Will is due to insufficient development, the solution involves exercising the requisite mental faculties.
    • Examples from Baumeister's lab: Having subjects practice improving posture whenever possible, keeping track of eating, speaking in complete sentences, or avoiding contractions resulted in improvement in self-regulatory capabilities.
    • A wide range of mental exercises are described in the Emotion-Focused Coping section of this course.

Predisposing conditions for the exercise of will

High-risk situations occur when local conditions — such as social pressure, negative emotional states —  promote relapse. The exercise of will involves over-riding these influences and acting in accord with a prior commitment. This is an impressive feat and, as far as we know, only humans can do it.

A marble is powerless to over-ride the influence of gravity. Their are many determinants of your actions, including what you consider to be your self-interests. You have power to influence overt and covert responding. However, the resources required to exercise this power are dear. When they are insufficient to over-ride other sources of influence that you encounter during a crisis, then you are bound to follow the path of least resistance to relapse. Consequently, an important part of the exercise of Will is developing and maintaining the cognitive and motivational resources required to to cope with the high-risk situations that you are bound to encounter. So:

  • Take good care of your body and manage your fight-or-flight reactions.

    • Rest and sleep Aside from any other benefit of sleep, giving the creature you inhabit time to recover the biological energy required to exercise will is critical. Actually being asleep does not seem to matter as much as giving the psyche time away from the crisis to allow the exhausted faculties time to rest.
      • Research from Baumeister's lab shows that administering glucose completely reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion. This finding is particularly interesting, because it suggestions that ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. Impulsivity increases because the Cognitive Processing System, which requires energy to do its labor is less able to exert its inhibitory influence. Rather than following the path of greatest advantage (considering the long-term consequences of its choices), the creature's behavior is determined by the immediate payoffs of the local environment.

    • Do what you can to avoid physical exhaustion and invest in ego-replenishing activities - e.g., vacations, flow activities, regular physical exercise .Getting yourself to do these things requires the very cognitive resources we are doing these things to enhance. Like many self-referential paradoxes, seemingly contradictory outcomes are both true. Spending your willpower in some ways enhance rather than deplete it, especially when long-term outcomes are taken into account.

  • Develop your Emotion-Focused Coping Skills. Strong emotional states not only engender state-dependent distortions of appraisals, memories, and response tendencies, but they drain the cognitive resources required to exercise will. The serenity prayer is an excellent guide to the enhancement of will. Specifically:

    • Be detached from reactions to things you do not control so that you do not fritter your dear cognitive resources away in meaningless attachments.
    • Of particular concern is the unnecessary emotionality caused by neurotic, ruminative self-focus, or by pointless attachments to things you do not control such as the past, what other people do, natural disasters, etc.

    • Be attached to good preparation and performance. You deserve to be gratified by your perseverance because you are responsible for it. Motivation to do the difficult things that need to be done can be aided by attachment to doing what it takes to be heroic - just don't let it get out of hand.

  • Develop respect for the challenge you face, and hence for the strengths and abilities required to successful cope with this challenge. [Perseverence and Self-Efficacy].


Perseverance and Self-Efficacy > >

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