Good leaders must be able to make decisions – be those snap judgments under pressure, or the careful analysis of the full facts before coming to an informed conclusion. However, as psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney point out in their book on willpower, if your job requires you to make tough calls all day long, at some point your willpower reserves become depleted. That results either in an inability to make decisions, or the making of very bad decisions (think Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky).
The authors divide the uses of willpower up into four broad categories: the control of thoughts, and an ability to focus; the control of open shows of emotion (though nobody can force themselves to be happy or sad); impulse control, AKA resisting temptation; and performance control, such as persisting with a task when weary or demoralised.
As Baumeister and Tierney’s research shows, it doesn’t matter how important the decisions are that someone has to make – they all use up the same amount of willpower. Dragging yourself out of bed, dealing with rush hour traffic, being polite to annoying colleagues, resisting the urge to quit when your boss makes yet another demand on your time – they all demand the same input of willpower.
So, for example, should you work in procurement, you may be interested to learn that when your reserves of willpower are low, you will be less able to purchase the most appropriate goods and services for your needs. Instead you will be more likely to look at just one dimension, such as price – and we all know that cheapest doesn’t necessarily mean best.
Meanwhile, if you’re frustrated that your boss has failed to take on board your innovative suggestions for change, it may be that they’ve run out of willpower and are looking for the easiest and safest options available.
The good news is that people can act to maintain their reserves of willpower. The first and most obvious solution is to get plenty of rest and relaxation, but it’s also important to eat well. Baumeister and Teirney discovered to their surprise that decision-making uses energy, just like exercising. No glucose means no willpower; which helps explain why depleted people crave sweets – and possibly why people trying to quit smoking often gain weight.
Helpfully, they also discovered that you can train yourself to use less willpower by, for example, concentrating on one project at a time, or monitoring your behaviours – helping to temper irrational decisions. Just as exercise builds muscle, wiring your brain to complete small goals helps strengthen your ability to achieve bigger and better things.
Fascinating to read and packed full of psychological research and practical advice on how to strengthen self-control, this is a great book for busy people with too little time. As Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist everything except temptation”. Now, do I fancy milk chocolate or plain? ?