The Magic of Willpower
The first line of David Blaine's Wikipedia page states that he "is an American magician, illusionist, and endurance artist". The magician and illusionist credentials prove entertaining, but his endurance artist performances offer athletes a wonderful example of the importance of motivation and willpower for goal attainment.
A few examples of Blaine's work as a performance artist:
In Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney's book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, they describe the process Blaine undertakes when preparing for each feat. Blaine is quoted of saying, "When I am training for a stunt and I have a goal, I change everything. I have self control in every aspect of my life. I read all the time. I eat perfectly. I do good things- I visit kids in the hospital...I have a whole different energy. Complete self control." Blaine goes on to add that when he completes a goal he goes to the opposite extreme and his lack of self control becomes pervasive in all areas of his life. Blaine shared the example that after a stunt he can go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds within three months.
So the question becomes how could a man who can go without food for 44 days not make good healthy choices at home? The answer was motivation. By making his attempts public Blaine was creating a powerful motivator, at home alone why would anyone doubt his ability to abstain, but there is another part of research to consider when looking at Blaine. The authors' compared willpower to strength training. Willpower is like a muscle that can be developed through training, but is also open to fatigue. In the laboratory people who are asked to exercise willpower were much more likely to under-perform compared to placebo groups on subsequent willpower related tasks such as grip strength or problem solving. Blaine's lack of self control following a feat may be similar to an NFL player needing to recover physically from the grind of a long season.
Each person has a finite amount of willpower at their disposal during any given day. Anytime we summon willpower we drain our reserve. Researchers use the term "ego depletion" to describe the process of activating one's willpower, and we experience this ego depletion anytime we resist eating dessert or bit our tongue when angry. This is why dieters struggle when exposed to unhealthy choices for a long period, eventually they exhaust their reserve and with it their ability to self regulate. As a result they experience cravings, frustrations, and desires more strongly and inevitably succumb to temptation.
Interestingly our willpower reserve is shared by the same factors that influence our decision making. The more decisions we make throughout the day not only limits our ability to make future decisions but also weakens our willpower.
President Obama cited this research in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2012. The following is a portion of the article:
"You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
Researchers are just beginning to understand how to systematically build willpower in people, but they do know that exercising willpower in any area of your life can have an impact. They suggest building routines and habits that promote planned exertion of willpower. In one study participants who were asked to monitor their posture for two weeks had an increase in self control utilization and were less vulnerable to ego depletion tasks in follow-up tests.
Three simple keys exist to help increase willpower:
Develop habits that exercise self control