I quit smoking for my birthday in 1976.
I have mentioned since that that used up all my willpower. I don’t smoke. I still like the smell of a good cigar but I still didn’t smoke today.
I figure I have aimed my stock of willpower at not smoking which doesn’t leave much to avoid lusting after a new Android tablet or a different boat.
Researcher Roy F. Baumeister sort of agrees in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Like a muscle, willpower is fatigued or broken down completely by overuse.
We’re not talking about the Australian racer who drives for Team Penske in the IndyCar Series. Willpower is usually thought to mean self discipline, self-control, or the ability to force yourself to do something you really really really didn’t want to do.
Like keep a New Year’s resolution.
I “came of [management] age” in the 70s and 80s when the B-schools thought employees were valuable and Theory Y was king. I still believe in Management By Objectives, a program I first implemented at Harris.
MBO relies on participative goal setting in which employees decide on what business goals they can attain and the tasks they will undertake to fulfill them. The part I like best is that we measure the actual results against the standards we set at the beginning of the period so we all — managers and managees alike — always know exactly how we are doing.
The reason managers like MBO is that the employees think they have power because they are setting their own goals and are more committed to the company (and more likely to outproduce the company expectations) as a result.
The only real downside to MBO is that it is still a top-down process.
On the other hand, it doesn’t rely solely on willpower. Properly done, every goal has both an external deadline and a manager or coach or peer to make sure we do it. It’s a pretty good process to force yourself to do something you really really really didn’t want to do.
When I led a parent group at our local middle and high school, we started a goal setting club. The kids created their own goals, set milestones, and chose someone to monitor their results. We had a reward at the end. The kids did very well.
Back to Dr. Baumeister’s weight room. He has shown that we can build “new” willpower in much the same way we build muscles in the gym: practice and reps, practice and reps. And by eating properly. Our brains need fuel to make decisions, store and retrieve memories, and pass standardized tests. Dr. Baumeister found that willpower requires glucose too so we can be strengthen our willpower simply by working out and adding to the brain’s fuel stores.
Building working muscle means working with moderate weights but doing it over and over and over again.
Want to keep your New Year’s resolutions?
Take Dr. Baumeister’s advice and use what we’ve learned in MBO. Just like the 7th and 8th graders:
- Create a goal you can reach. It is darned near impossible to lose 50 pounds but it is reasonable to lose a pound a week.
- Set checkpoints to make sure you’re on track. That’s no different than going to the gym every day.
- Choose someone to monitor your results. There is nothing like peer pressure to make sure you haven’t snuck out to the barn for a smoke — I told everyone I knew I was quitting and they watched me like hungry mosquitoes.
- Build your willpower and resolutions just one or two goals at a time. You can work your biceps today and your glutes tomorrow.
Revolutionary, that is.