Empower Your Willpower

One of my fundamental beliefs about money is that it mostly comes down to self-control: Making yourself do the right things and preventing yourself from doing the wrong things. I've discussed this before in these cyber-pages and cited the work of Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State (where I spent a week back in 1986 for Boys State — was it really that long ago?). Along with New York Times science columnist John Tierney, Baumeister recently published Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. I recently interviewed Dr. Baumeister about how willpower can be strengthened and used to improve our finances and beyond.

Robert Brokamp: Can I change my willpower or am I just born with the willpower that I have?
Roy Baumeister: That is a crucial point. Willpower can be improved. It works like a muscle, so when you exercise it, it gets stronger. We haven't tested the other side — that if it gets weaker if you don't exercise it, but I imagine that that is true. That is really important news because psychology has really found just two traits that predict success across most or all walks of life: intelligence and self-control. As for intelligence, we haven't been able to find improvement beyond a little short-term boost. So improving self-control and willpower is a crucial way to make your life better, and we find in our studies that even as adults, you can improve your willpower by regular exercise.

Brokamp: Explain the concept “ego depletion” and how when you exercise willpower, you tire it out.
Baumeister: Yes, exactly like a muscle, that as you exercise it, it will get tired. If you really wanted to carry some heavy loads right after you have been working out, you will find it more difficult to do that, but if you work out regularly, when the loads come along, you will be in better shape and better able to handle them.

Brokamp: During the course of the day, we are subjected to many temptations. I think in the book you made the point that one study found that 25% of our waking hours are spent resisting some sort of desire.
How should someone who, let's say is a spendaholic, factor that into their habits if they know that at some point their willpower is going to be depleted?
If you know how it works, you can really manage it more effectively, so don't go shopping when you have been either resisting temptation or making decisions — it turns out they use the same willpower. People don't realize that intuitively, but if you have made a long series of choices, you will be more inclined to do things impulsively — spend too much money, yield to temptation and so forth — so a bit of knowing yourself and planning is good.

Another important point is to understand how mind and body work together. Glucose is a chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to your brain and your muscles. We find that after acts of self-control that glucose is temporarily lowered, so if you have another challenge or if you have to go shopping or make some investment decisions or whatever, you want to replenish that glucose by maybe getting something good to eat first, and you need to allow a little time for that to get from your stomach into the bloodstream.

Brokamp: Is there a difference between resisting temptation, like spending or food, and making yourself do something you don't want to do, like fill out financial paperwork?
Baumeister: The short answer is no, at least not from the perspective of willpower and self-control. This is a crucial point, too. You have one stock of willpower that you use for everything, so all these actions are tied together. All day long, as you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, resist a piece of cake for lunch, and make yourself laugh at somebody's stupid joke — all these things take willpower, and they deplete your resources and make you prone to shallower, simplistic, less-effective decisions when your willpower is down.

Brokamp: What kind of exercise will increase your willpower?
Baumeister: You have only one muscle, one stock of willpower, so exercising it in any sphere will strengthen it for all the others. It's not like if you want to improve how well you handle the housework, you need to work on your housework willpower. Any improvement will lead to improvements for all.

So to practice it, try working on habits, and my advice is to start with an easy one. Make your bed every day, or clean up the dishes after you have dinner — do something that you can easily incorporate into your routine. You make this change, and that strengthens your willpower and self-control, and then you can move on to something else. In one study, we had people work on their posture for two weeks. We told them that whenever they thought of it, just stand up straight and sit up straight. When they came back to the laboratory, not only was their posture better but they also performed better on all sorts of laboratory tests of self-control that had no relationship to posture.

Brokamp: In Willpower, you talk about the value of Mint.com. How can personal finance software help?
Baumeister: One of the easiest ways to improve your overall self-control performance is simply to get better at keeping track of whatever you are trying to change. It's very hard to control or change something you aren't aware of. So using a tool like Mint will give you all sorts of feedback about how you are handling your money.

When I was 18 years old, I went to Germany, and I was trying to live on about $3 a day. My grandmother said, “Write down everything you spend, and you will know exactly where your money goes.” That was the old-fashioned way, but with a tool like Mint, you can get regular feedback on what you are spending and if anything is out of line. My grandmother's advice came from a time when people pretty much had the cash in their wallets and that's all, so your ability to spend more than you had was somewhat limited. Now with credit cards, you have to do that on your own — your wallet being empty doesn't do that for you.

We have more temptations than ever before, but we also have technological aids to help us. Mint automatically gives you records of what you have spent, broken down by category. That helps, because many people— even though they are pretty good in other respects — run into difficulties with debt and charging too much on their credit cards because each expense is just $30 or $40. It doesn't ever seem like very much, but you don't have a sense of how they are all adding up together until you get the bill, and then it may be shocking.

Brokamp: Another interesting point that you brought up in the book was that “public information has more impact than private information,” and you talked about the “public humiliation diet” of Drew Magary, who would Tweet out his weight. Why does it work that way?
Baumeister: I think we are shaped by nature to work together with other people and therefore to care what other people think of us. The basic biological strategy of human beings is we survive and reproduce by cooperating and working together with others in these small groups, so success with them is very important. Nature doesn't care what you think of yourself, but nature does care what other people think of you insofar as in your evolutionary history — your own survival and reproduction depended on other people having a good opinion of you. This is something I had found and studied way back from the beginnings of my career, my dissertation and all. People are much more motivated to maintain a good impression on others than to make a good impression on themselves because you can always fool yourself, but it is harder to fool other people consistently or get them to accept your rationalizations.

Brokamp: How do people use that? You had some suggestions in the book, and it sounds like there are some resources — such as stickK.com, Xpenser.com, and Tweetwhatyouspend.com, as well as RescueTime.com and QuantifiedSelf.com. But let's say if I want to lose weight or I need to cut back on my spending, how do I use this principle of making it public is probably more effective?
Baumeister: With spending, it is a little delicate in that people don't want to have too many people know about how much money they spend. People are a little less shy about that when you are taking up jogging or walking or something. There is something that works really well where people share information of how many steps they walked today. But with money you could at least share it with one intimate partner and say, “This is going to be my target, and this information will come to you each day as to how much I have saved and how much I have spent.” That way there is at least someone, and we find that simply knowing that someone else will know about it may motivate you to think twice and perhaps make some better decisions along the way.

Brokamp: Could you explain the Zeigarnik Effect?
Baumeister: The Zeigarnik Effect is that an unfulfilled task will tend to prey on your mind; if you start something and don't finish it, you keep getting intrusive thoughts. What seems to be happening is the unconscious wants some help from the conscious mind, so it keeps saying, “Hey, we haven't finished this.” It sort of keeps reminding you that there is something that needs to be done.

Now we found in our work that if you consciously make a plan for exactly when you are going to do that, that seems to reduce the number of intrusive thoughts. In human life we work on one thing and then we go to work on something else, and to continue to get intrusive thoughts about the previous task can interfere with doing something else. If you have a precise plan for when you are going to go back and finish the other, that seems to satisfy it to some degree.

I think that's consistent with the Getting Things Done approach [founded by David Allen]; all these undone tasks weigh on your mind and destroy your peace of mind and intrude on your thoughts while you are trying to do other things. So he [David Allen] doesn't say you have to do everything right away; you just have to have a clear plan for when you were going to do those things and that's what our research found.

Brokamp: And if I am remembering this correctly, it's actually better to a weekly or monthly plan than a daily plan?
Baumeister: Yes. Now it may vary a little bit by task, and whether it is your plan in life or the plan for what you are going to get at the grocery store. But for people who are planning their work — and I would assume the same thing would go with financial planning — to plan it down to the day-by-day detail might not be effective. First, it is lot of extra work. Second, it's not all that flexible; if you miss one thing, then your whole plan is off. So I think that medium-level plans are more sustainable and more flexible and less onerous, but also can help you move towards your long-term goals.

What's one small habit you can start today to strengthen your willpower muscle?

More about...Psychology

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