Resnick: Willpower can be learned
Can willpower be taught?
Leadership and organizational consultant Hal Resnick says it can.
Resnick, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, is president of Work Systems Associates Inc.
His 35 years in organizational development and training include work with EverBank, The Haskell Co., Lockheed Martin, Shell Oil and others. He produces a regular newsletter and posts it at his worksystems.com website.
In his January newsletter, Resnick wrote about the "locus of control," a concept that describes people along a continuum from "internality" on one end and "externality" on the other.
It was developed in 1954 by a psychologist named Julian Rotter.
Those on the internal end of the scale are people who believe that they have internal control over their lives. They are responsible for their actions and for the consequences of those actions.
They believe that they can and do influence those outcomes and their lives.
Those on the external end of the scale believe that the external world — fate — is in charge and they are relatively powerless. They perceive themselves to be victims in the world. Even when good things happen to them, they attribute it to luck rather than their own
Resnick writes that the "locus of control" makes a difference when it comes to willpower.
"'Internals' are more goal-oriented, more achievement-oriented, accomplish more in their lives, sustain healthier relationships and are happier with their lives," he wrote.
"Leaders and managers will always select self-empowered, goal-oriented internals than self-disempowered externals who refuse to accept responsibility and blame others or events for their failures," he wrote.
"Parents typically want their children to take responsibility for their own lives and empower themselves to achieve their full potential," he said.
Can such "internality" be developed?
Yes, he wrote.
"Internality — a belief in oneself and one's ability to control and influence themselves and the world around them — can absolutely be developed," he wrote.
"Furthermore, it is a life-determining variable. Internality drives success in life more than intelligence. It outperforms IQ every time," he wrote.
Delay of gratification
Resnick wrote the "driving variable" that develops internality is "delay of gratification."
"The ability to control or modify behavior in the moment for a desired reward or outcome later is the key determinant in developing internality," he wrote.
"The commonly used term for this ability is called willpower," he wrote
Resnick wrote about studies of 4- and 5-year-olds called "the cupcake test."
"One or several children are brought into a room and given a cupcake. The researcher tells them that when he leaves the room in a minute or so they can eat the cupcake if they want it," Resnick wrote.
"But if they can wait until he comes back in about 10 minutes then they can have two cupcakes. Then he leaves," he said.
Some of the kids scarf down the cupcake the minute he leaves the room, but the other kids wait, according to Resnick.
Those that wait use different techniques. They hide the cupcake. They cover their eyes. They make up games to amuse and distract themselves. And they receive two cupcakes when the researcher returns.
"Here's the amazing outcome," Resnick wrote.
"Longitudinal studies have been conducted that followed these 4- and 5-year-olds through the course of their lives. Those who waited to get two cupcakes – who exercised their willpower to delay gratification, who believed they could control their behavior – applied this principle throughout their lives," he wrote.
Those children performed better in high school, scoring an average 200 points higher on SAT exams, even though the two groups had identical IQs. They were more active in sports and other team activities. A greater percentage went on to college, he wrote.
Also, they earned more money over their lifetime, had fewer divorces, and expressed greater satisfaction about their lives, he wrote.
"They understood that waiting today for a greater reward tomorrow was worth it," he wrote.
What we know about willpower
Resnick said studies show willpower is like a muscle.
"The more it is practiced or exercised, the stronger it becomes. Working at willpower and staying the course transfers from one circumstance to another," he said.
For example, when people exercise willpower by dieting, they also tend to exercise more because they want to; if they smoke, they reduce the amount they smoke; they manage their finances more carefully; and they plan their time more carefully.
"In short, willpower is the keystone habit that transfers to all other aspects of life," he wrote
At the same time, willpower, like a muscle, is subject to fatigue.
"People can only sustain willpower for so long before they need to take a break," he wrote.
"Consider the hard-driving executive who regularly works out in the gym after work, which certainly requires willpower. On some days she is ready and eager for the gym; on other days it's really tough. Sometimes she doesn't make it at all," Resnick wrote.
Why is one day more difficult than another? He said there is a direct correlation between the level of stress and willpower that had to be exerted during the day and the amount of energy and willpower left over at the end of the day for the gym.
"If too much willpower is required for self-control in critical meetings, for staying focused in writing a key proposal, for making a critical presentation, then there just isn't enough juice left in the tank at the end of the workday. The willpower muscle needs a rest," he wrote.
Making willpower a habit
Resnick said willpower can be developed into a habit.
"Habits are ways of behaving that become automatic and we do them without consciously thinking about it," Resnick wrote.
"Habits are triggered by cues. The cue generates a response and the resulting action or outcome is pleasurable to us; it represents a reward," he wrote.
"The habit ultimately becomes so ingrained that we actually develop a craving for it – the cue becomes so powerful that it creates a desire for the response and the reward," he wrote.
Of course, habits can be good or bad.
For example, the cue for smoking could be a social situation or the smell of a cup of coffee.
"The cue triggers the craving which drives the response — light up the cigarette — to generate the reward — the nicotine high," he wrote.
For successful students, the cue could be a new class and assignments, which triggers the craving for good grades and recognition from others. That craving drives the behavior to study, stay organized and do homework, which generates the reward — a higher grade and recognition.
"Willpower is much stronger when individuals believe that they have autonomy and control over their decisions and actions – when they believe they have willpower," he wrote
For example, when employees are directed to do or not do something, they have a much lower sense of autonomy or control.
"As a consequence, their willpower to follow the directive is lower and maintaining it is much more exhausting," Resnick wrote.
"When employees feel that they have been asked to follow directions but their acceptance and buy-in has been solicited, they will maintain much stronger willpower for longer periods of time with much less fatigue," he wrote.
"Helping employees feel that they are in control, with genuine decision-making authority demonstrated through their decision to accept the work, makes a huge difference. Buy-in matters," he wrote.
It can be simple to develop willpower, according to Resnick.
First, like all habits, the first step is to learn how to do it.
"Learning how to do it means planning and practicing the response. The most successful approach to developing a habit calls for a detailed implementation plan," he wrote.
An unsuccessful habit might be the decision to go to the gym three times a week. A successful habit would include the specific days, times and a pre-planned workout routine.
It also would include keeping a record of the results, with the satisfaction of seeing the progress being made, he wrote.
"Set the cues and prepare the response. Make sure the cue is defined – such as automatically flossing as part of the ritual of getting ready for bed. Then be sure the reward – feeling that everything is done – is part of the process," he wrote.
For example, parents who teach their children to come home from school, have a snack and then immediately complete their homework before they are allowed to play are developing a very positive habit, including the delay of gratification to do their schoolwork before playing.
"Establishing the willpower that there is no play until all the homework is done builds a keystone habit. The reward is multifold: the satisfaction of knowing the schoolwork is done; feeling fully prepared for school the next day; perhaps hopefully recognition from parents; and now the ability to play without interruptions or worry about homework that is not yet done," Resnick wrote.
The next step in developing willpower is consistent practice.
"Willpower, like any other muscle, must be practiced to get stronger," he wrote.
Inconsistent practice or application will not work. Consistency is not perfection because everyone slips up now and then, but immediately resuming the program reinforces the development of the habit.
Changing bad habits
Bad habits cannot be eliminated through willpower alone.
"Mental cues become too powerful over time. The solution is to replace one response with another, triggering the same or
an equally pleasant reward," Resnick wrote.
For example, the desire to quit smoking cannot be accomplished simply through determination. The cues will be there – and an alternative response must be developed.
"For some, the smokeless cigarette is an acceptable alternative. For others, replacing the cue for smoking with a walk around the block and the good feeling that comes with it is a successful replacement," he wrote.
"Unfortunately, many replace the smoking response with an eating response, which is why so many people gain weight when they quit smoking."
Believing in willpower
Resnick wrote there is one last factor that must be incorporated into the willpower equation, the "fundamental belief that we can control our behaviors."
For a habit to become successfully ingrained, there must be a belief the habit will generate the desired reward," he wrote.
"Belief is the final and essential component of developing willpower, that staying the course will create the desired results," he wrote.
"Developing the willpower to stay the course even in the midst of crisis … is the hallmark of the truly successful person and organization," he wrote.