“The Science of Will Power”


Shelly Levitt, Success Magazine

Reviewed by Deb Gulbrandson, PT

As private practice owners, we do not really have bosses, unless of course we count the bank, our patients, and even our employees. Sometimes it really feels as if we are working for them. Steven R. Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies that we can get caught up in “urgent but not important” categories, dancing to everyone else’s needs. Truthfully, unless you have a partner who pushes you to instead do the “important but not urgent” activities—the business-building tasks—these can often get pushed to the side.

Without having to answer to a true boss, how do we, as owners, keep ourselves on task? In the March 2013 issue of Success magazine, author Shelley Levitt’s article “The Science of Willpower” sheds light on this concept. Levitt relates a recent study from Florida State University, describing how people are constantly bombarded by desires and do not fight them very successfully. We do fairly well avoiding extramarital affairs and overspending, but are less successful resisting unhealthy foods and are downright dismal at standing firm against the lure of modern technology: surfing the Internet, checking email constantly, and watching mindless television.

Willpower is more than saying “I will, I won’t, or I want.” It is defined as the ability to choose what matters most, even when it is difficult or when some part of you wants to choose something else. Studies show that willpower is a limited resource. As we call upon it, we deplete our reserves. And the same energy used for self-control is spent in making decisions, even inconsequential ones. What clothes to wear, which variety of yogurt to eat, whether to exercise today or not? As owners we make hundreds of decisions a day, some minimal, some extremely important.

Exerting self-control is one of the brain’s most energy-expensive tasks, sapping more blood sugar (glucose) than memory or language chores. An experiment showed a video to two groups of people with one group instructed to ignore flashing words across a video screen while the other group was given no such instructions. The first group’s blood sugar levels plunged afterward while the “stress-free” group’s did not. Follow-up experiments showed that when glucose was restored with a glass of sugar-sweetened lemonade, willpower was replenished and performance on self-control tasks improved. The takeaway: One defense against a willpower scarcity is to avoid glucose dips. Maintain stable blood sugar with a diet of low-glycemic foods such as non starchy veggies, fruit, nuts, etc. Ever wonder why you want a candy bar when you are under pressure? Now you know.

Reducing unnecessary withdrawals can also help avoid willpower bankruptcy, writes Levitt. President Obama uses this strategy by only wearing gray or blue suits. “I don’t make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make,” he told Vanity Fair in October 2012. “You need to routinize yourself and focus your decision-making energy. You cannot be going through your day distracted by trivia.”

Levitt gives several suggestions on ways to strengthen our resolve.

Meditation increases the neural pathways leading to better impulse control. With daily practice, people can turn their brains into “finely tuned willpower machines.” Surprise, surprise, exercise helps cultivate the prefrontal cortex needed for self-discipline. Small bursts of brisk movement, such as a fast-paced five-minute walk several times a day, help your brain remember your big goals. And there is a spillover effect. If you practice self-control in one area, you tend to experience improved self-discipline in others.

Practice Bottom line

Our ability to function optimally in business includes our skills in remaining focused on the big picture and not getting distracted by the flotsam and jetsam of life. Developing our “willpower muscle” can help with that.

A consultant once told me, “It is important to know what to do, but more important to know what to do next.” Activities such as meditation, exercise, avoiding “glucose dips” through healthy eating, and systematizing daily or weekly tasks will help minimize energy depletion (brain drain). This can free us up to make the really important decisions in running our businesses.

Deb Gulbrandson, PT, is an Impact editorial board member and owner of Cary Physical Therapy in Cary, Illinois. She can be reached at deb@caryphysicaltherapy.com.

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