Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Observing my friends and family, I came up with a theory that ones willingness to tolerate discomfort had a lot to do with whether or not a person exercised routinely. I noted that some people would cancel a walk if they had a blister or back off in a class because their quads were burning while others would push through injury and illness -- throwing up during a basketball game and getting right back on the court; taping up a bloody, swollen toe to catch in a baseball game; making a concession to a torn rotator cuff by doing a shorter triathlon. I also noted that the people that step back when their quads are burning often seem stunned when they hear other people felt the same thing and kept going. 

Then, I read Switch and started thinking about self control as an exhaustible resource. This was a big aha moment for me and I blogged a bit about it in this post -- Self Control and the HR Candy Jar

I didn't connect the two thoughts until today when my colleague, Terry Harris, shared this post with me -- The Neuroscience of Success. Maybe it's not about your willingness to tolerate discomfort -- it's about willpower. 

The better you are able to resist your own natural impulses, the more effectively you can focus your energy on the task at hand. I experienced this on Sunday when I did my first triathlon. (It was just a sprint distance, but I was pushing myself well outside my comfort zone.) As I swam and biked and ran, I felt like my body was just doing what my mind had predetermined. I guess that was willpower. 

The good news is that you can develop your willpower. A study suggests that brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand for two weeks will increase your stick-to-it-tiveness in other areas. The author of the post I shared, Jason Gots, also suggests a few things that you can do to conserve your willpower which is crucial when you think about willpower as an exhaustible resource. Especially during a period of time that you're trying to make a change. He suggests organizing your work day so that tasks requiring more effortful self-control are interspersed with ones that require less, taking breaks after willpower-intensive activities, and avoiding draining your willpower before important activities. Maybe some minor adjustments to your work day will help you conserve enough willpower to make it through your evening workout or resist a dinner of red wine and chocolate ice cream.   

Update: 11/27/2011

Just saw this article in the New York Times Willpower: It’s in Your Head -- "When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet,

It's so nice to see these ideas being spread around and put to use. Great post!

--Jason @BigThink