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Willpower versus key lime pie ... (Getty Images)
Willpower versus key lime pie ... (Getty Images)

MARGARET WENTE

Debt, key lime pie and willpower Add to ...

In matters of discipline and self-control, my life leaves a lot to be desired. My in-box has 2,000 messages I’ve really got to read some time, and my desk looks like a tornado struck it. I don’t exercise enough. I sometimes neglect to floss or shave my legs. (Note from ed: TMI!) I have a weakness for President’s Choice key lime pie, frozen, straight from the box. I’d really like to learn the piano, but I know I’d never practice.

My friend William, by contrast, is a model of order and self-command. He does 101 pushups every morning, then plays piano for an hour. His desk is spotless, and he never eats dessert.

Self-control – a trait once known as willpower – is a common hallmark of successful people. Steve Jobs had it. Barack Obama has it. Dalton McGuinty has it. All are, or were, workaholics with temperate habits. In the Premier’s office at Queen’s Park, they used to have cookie hour on Friday afternoons. As one former adviser told the Toronto Star, everyone except Mr. McGuinty took two or three cookies; he took only one, and nibbled it.

A pile of research shows that the ability to self-regulate plays a far bigger role in social outcomes than race or class or any other factor except intelligence. Remember the marshmallow test? Researchers tested four-year-olds by leaving them alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were told that, if they didn’t eat it, they’d be rewarded with two marshmallows. The test turned out to be astonishingly predictive. Kids who could resist the marshmallow were more likely to finish school, hold a job, stay married, pay their bills, and grow up to be premier. In other words, Woody Allen was right when he said, “Half of life is just showing up.”

A fascinating new book called Willpower, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, summarizes the latest findings about self-control, and the extent to which it can be learned and taught. This is an important subject because, in a complex modern society, willpower – or the lack of it – matters more than ever. The ability to self-regulate is a large part of what separates the haves from the have-nots. And some of society’s biggest problems are rooted in people’s widespread failure of willpower in an age of spectacular abundance.

Few of our ancestors were tempted to eat too much or spend beyond their means – they didn’t have the opportunity. But, today, these temptations are ubiquitous. People are fat because they’re surrounded by cheap, high-calorie food. People are in hock up to their eyeballs because they have access to unlimited credit. In other words, the modern world is full of marshmallows. And, being human, we want to gorge on them.

“Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time,” concluded a team of researchers quoted in the book. This failure contributes not only to obesity, but to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, addiction and a host of other social problems.

Willpower is like one of those Victorian virtues that went out of fashion along with top hats and corsets. But Mr. Baumeister and Mr. Tierney don’t treat it as a moral trait. They say it’s rooted in a bunch of chemical reactions in the brain, and influenced by substances such as glucose. When your glucose is depleted, as it is after a hard day of fighting traffic, battling stress and exercising restraint, you’re far more likely to go home and kick the cat. Using your willpower actually wears it out. This explains why I like to splurge on frozen pie after a hard day at the word factory. It also explains why I can resist going shopping for months, then have an overwhelming need to buy a $400 purse.

The news about willpower turns a lot of social science on its ear. Most social scientists look for the causes of social failure outside the individual: deprivation, oppression, discrimination and so on. “Searching for external factors is often more comfortable for everyone,” the authors write, “particularly for the many academics who worry that they risk the politically incorrect sin of ‘blaming the victim’ by suggesting that people’s problems might arise from causes inside themselves.” Social problems can also seem easier to fix than character defects – despite the overwhelming evidence that they aren’t.

Yet, it’s obvious that people’s problems often arise from within. Everyone deserves a job. But some people can’t manage to show up on time, or resist telling off the boss. They don’t need a jobs program; they need a different kind of help.

Fortunately, self-control can be improved. One way is to instill orderly habits into the routines of daily life. It turns out that, if you make your bed, floss your teeth and shine your shoes, you’re more likely to develop the discipline you need for larger goals. And the more you internalize it, the easier it gets. This is a large part of the secret behind the success of the KIPP schools, which work with disadvantaged kids in the United States. The kids’ normal world is chaotic; the KIPP program gives them order and structure, the preconditions for academic success.

Luckily for me, I’m not a total flop in the willpower department. I seldom miss a deadline. I’d rather cut off my arm than pay interest on credit-card debt. And now that I’ve finished off the key lime pie, I am going to make my bed. At least, I plan to.

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