In the smart restaurant of a very smart hotel in the West End of London, I order a lunch of burger and fries with mayo, and then decides not to eat the fries. ‘I won’t eat something that’s not good for me unless it’s absolutely perfect, and it’s going to give me real pleasure, I say to the waiter.
That’s willpower for you.
Willpower is what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation – do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilisation.
The disciplined and dutiful Victorians, all stiff upper lip and lashings of moral fibre, had willpower in spades; as, sadly, did the Nazis, who referred to their evil adventure as the “triumph of will”. In the swinging 60s it was thought otherwise: let it all hang out; if it feels good, do it; I’m OK, you’re OK.
But without willpower, it seems, we’re actually rarely okay.
Those with low willpower are more likely to be in low-paying jobs with few savings, to be overweight, to have drug or alcohol problems, and to have difficulty maintaining stable relationships. Willpower is one of the most important predictors of success in life.
So how can we improve ours?
Exercising willpower helps, but also making decisions and choices and taking initiatives, all seem to draw on the same well of energy.
So best avoid trying to do too many things involving mental effort at the same time, or if you’re ill. As with a muscle, you can train your willpower. Even small, day-to-day acts of willpower such as maintaining good posture, speaking in complete sentences or using a computer mouse with the other hand, can pay off by reinforcing longer-term self-control in completely unrelated activities.
The final way in which willpower resembles a mental “muscle” is that when its strength is depleted, it can be revived with glucose. Getting a decent night’s sleep and eating well – good, slow-burning fuel – is important in the exercise of willpower.
My willpower tips: Build up your self-control by exercising it regularly in small ways. Learn to recognise signs that your willpower may be waning. Don’t crash diet. Don’t try to do too much at once. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list.
Don’t put yourself in temptation’s way, or if you can’t avoid it, make it harder for yourself to succumb. Use your willpower actively: plan, commit, and do so (like members of religious communities) publicly. People with low willpower use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises.
You may even learn how to say no to fries.