David Blaine spent 35 hours on a 80-foot pillar just 22 inches wide, without a safety harness, fighting hallucinations and the urge to nod off (and fall to his death). He spent 63 sleepless hours in a giant block of ice inches from his face. He spent 7 days inside a coffin with 6 inches of headspace. He spent 17 minutes underwater. He spent 44 days without food suspended above the Thames in a sealed transparent box, ranging from subfreezing to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.
Blaine is an endurance professional, and his stunts are not illusions; they are feats of willpower. Growing up, he trained himself in the discipline of self-control and deliberate practice. He studied the Victorian training of his childhood hero, Houdini, and forced himself to fast for ten days on just water by age 18. Long-term endurance training strengthened his willpower like a muscle.
In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel gave 4-year-olds the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. When he followed up decades later, he found that the kids who deferred gratification turned into adults who had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.
Willpower helps us exercise more, work more effectively, and live more healthily. ‘People who have better control of their attention, emotions and actions are better off, happier and healthier, better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity,’ says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
Can willpower be strengthened? If we want to increase it, which strategies are most effective? And can those techniques be taught? I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading into this. Here’s what I’m learning.
‘In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than intellectual talent. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics,’ saysCharlesDuhigg.
‘There is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control,’ says Kelly McGonigal.
What does the science suggest?
Baumeister: willpower is like a muscle
Starting in 1998, experiments in Baumeister’s lab showed that exertions of willpower left people with less self-control.
‘Your supply of willpower is limited, and you use the same resource for many different things. Each day’s stock is refreshed if you have a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. Low sleep, poor nutrition and low exercise sap willpower and create impulse control and attention problems. Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.’
Thaler & Sunstein: the planner and the doer
‘Self-control issues can be illuminated by thinking about our minds as containing two systems, a far-sighted Planner and a myopic Doer. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but cope with your tempted Doer. Self-control strategies are our Planners taking steps to control the actions of our Doers often by trying to change the incentives our Doers face.’
Kahnemann: the paradox of effort and self-control
Our minds have two systems: system 1 is fast, automatic and effortless, and system 2 is slow, deliberate and effortful.
‘System 2 is in charge of self-control, but requires this effortful exertion. And effortful thinking also requires discipline and self-control. Self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up.’
McGonigal: meet your two minds
‘Meet your two minds: the impulsive and wiser minds. When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices.
‘If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s remembering what you really want. To develop more self-control, you must first develop more self-awareness. The first step is to notice when you are making self-control choices.
‘Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless. You need to recognise when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest. Psychologists know most of our decisions are made on autopilot’.
Duckworth: self-control and grit
Angela Duckworth’s research shows that what most predicts success for pupils is grit. Grit is motivated perseverance for long-term goals. Those with grit have the stamina to persist with the deliberate practice vital for achievement.
‘To me, the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it. Every day, parents and teachers ask me, “What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?”
Duckworth divides the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition, or grit and self-control. Grit is long-term stamina; self-control is micro-decisions. ‘A strong will doesn’t help much if a student isn’t motivated to succeed; but motivation alone is insufficient without the volitional fortitude to follow through on goals’.
Duckworth’s research findings into self-control are online:
- Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents (2005)
- Can adolescents learn self-control? (2010)
- Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents (2011)
- A meta-analysis of self control measures (2011)
- The predictive power of the gratification delay test (2013)
- Self-regulation and school success (2013)
Her research has tested a self-control survey used for pupils:
Tough: motivation is complex.
“That’s the problem with trying to motivate people: no one really knows how to do it well.”
How does this research translate into education practice for school leaders and teachers? That is the challenge I’ll take up on this blog in the coming weeks.