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Willpower

This is one of the most informative nonfiction books I’ve ever read:

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

In this book John Tierney documents the results of years of research by Roy Baumeister on the subject of willpower. He gives tons of great anecdotes about experiments and observations. But this post will cover only my major takeaways.

1) You willpower is finite and becomes depleted each time you use it.

2) You use the same reserve of willpower for everything you do (see p. 35).

3) Sleep and glucose replenish the reserve.

I’ll unpack those points briefly. Like a car has a gas tank, the authors argue, you have a willpower tank. And it only has a certain capacity. Once you empty the tank any given day, you’re running on empty until you get food and sleep.

How do you empty the tank? Every time you do something that takes an act of willpower, you lose some from the tank. Acts that take willpower include anything that requires you controlling your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance.

The authors make a big deal of the fact that people tend to be more prone to pop off on spouses and children after an especially hard day at work. The willpower tank is empty at the end of the day. That’s when you need to be careful.

In order to refill the tank you need glucose and sleep. A glass of lemonade, or preferably a good meal, can do wonders. So can a good night’s rest.

I’ve started thinking about willpower in terms of a bucket. You need to know when your willpower bucket is getting low. Remember that every time you perform some act of self control (even if you fail at that act), you’re taking a ladle-full (or more) of willpower out of the bucket. When the bucket gets low, it’s not a good time to go grocery shopping. Or to have a disciplinary meeting with a child. Or to have a serious discussion with your spouse or boss. Sleep on it first. Or at least have a good meal.

The authors recommend a few things to help us in battles of willpower:

  • Watch for symptoms (p. 245): Keep your mind on the bucket. If you recognizing that you’re close to flying off the handle, or binge eating, or whatever you may do when your willpower is depleted, take note. And get yourself out of the situation.
  • Pick your battles (p. 248): Don’t try to do a lot of willpower depleting activities at once. If you’re trying to quit smoking (and that’s going to be a huge act of will), that’s probably not a good time to also go on a major diet.
  • Develop steady habits: Once something becomes a habit, it no longer takes willpower.

One of the more interesting points (at least for me) the authors make is that repeat dieters often struggle because the body that has once experienced the depletion needed for a major diet will fight harder and harder to keep you from putting it through it again. The authors call dieting a major catch 22. Why? Because dieting takes willpower. And willpower needs glucose. And dieting restricts glucose.

Finally, the book gave me a new appreciation of Christ’s experience in his temptation with Satan. It’s not mentioned in the book, but I couldn’t help but think of it. Satan came to him while he was on an extended fast. When his willpower was at his lowest. But he had a food that Satan didn’t understand:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). That was his ultimate source of willpower. We need that type of communion with God to keep our buckets full as well.

How to Get People to Convince Themselves to Do the Right Thing

Recent Reading: Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything – Fast by Michael Pantalon.

I’ve already used Pantalon’s technique in my counseling ministry. And everyone I’ve shared it with has found it helpful. On top of that, it’s really simple.

You use, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how badly/much..?” Then you follow up by asking the person why they chose that number instead of a lower one. 

Here are a few examples.

1) Let’s say I’m counseling a husband who is neglecting his wife and ruining his marriage. I want to counsel this man to become a better husband. As a pastor, I would give biblical imperatives and pray for this man, of course. But then comes Pantalon’s instant influence technique. I would ask the man, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you want your marriage to continue and thrive?”

If the man answers something like “7.” I would then ask, “Why did you pick such a high number? Why didn’t you say ‘3’ or ‘4?'” This would set a context in which the man I’m counseling would then begin to reason with himself (out loud) about why he wants his marriage to work. You’re setting up a scenario where he can convince himself to make the right decision. He may begin telling you how much he loves his wife. And how he can’t imagine himself living without her. And how he realizes he’s been messing up and knows that he needs to do better. And by the time he leaves the office, he’s already preached a sermon to himself. You just played the role of instigator.

I recently heard someone say, “No one will ever reject their own conclusion.” If you let a person argue himself into making a choice, he is not going to reject the conclusion he comes to in his own mind. So that’s the goal. You’re pushing the person toward a desired outcome.

2) Another example. Let’s say your daughter doesn’t want to do her homework. You ask her, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you want to do your homework?” Let’s say she answers with “3.” Then you would say something like, “So you picked a 3. That’s actually higher than I expected. Why didn’t you pick 2 or 1?” Her answer then may be something like, “Well, if I don’t do it, I know I’m going to get a bad grade, and I don’t need a bad grade right now. And, I guess I sort of do need to do it…” And before you know it, she’s working on her homework. Because she’s convinced herself (with your help) to do it.

As a pastor, I would obviously begin any scenario with counsel from the Bible. But I’ve found it rather easy to tie this process into biblical counseling situations. It’s especially helpful because you can use it in virtually any scenario. From counseling a husband who isn’t fulfilling his duties, to trying to get your child to do her homework, to trying to convince a committee to follow a plan you think is best, the instant influence process is helpful.

3) Another example. Let’s say you’re talking to someone who’s very discontent with their job and you want to nudge them toward contentment. You could ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much to you like your job?” If they say “2,” then ask them why they didn’t say “1.” This will at least provoke them to start saying a few things they actually do like about their job. Ideally, this would lead to the person convincing himself that his job isn’t really as bad as he thinks when he takes a step back and looks at the big picture. He may be so busy focusing on the negatives that he’s never taken the time to do this before.

If you give this a try, regardless of the scenario, give me a comment to let me know how this worked for you.

Empowertising = Depowertising

Andi Zeisler writes about advertisements catering to feminism. Quotes are from We Were Feminists Once.

On creating needs no one really has:

Here’s the thing we all know about advertising to women: the products aimed their way, from household cleaners to cosmetics to personal-care products, are pitched to solve a problem that in many cases the consumer might not ever know she had until she was alerted to and/or shamed for it (Wait, I didn’t know my armpits were supposed to be sexier!) (p. 25).

On selling back a movement to target groups:

Celebrating [feminist] ads themselves simply celebrates advertisers’ skill at co-opting women’s movements and selling them back [to] us – and then rewards us for buying in (p. 28).

Zeisler makes the argument that when the feminist movement began to gain steam, the corporate world jumped all over it – to sell feminism back to women in a repackaged, reshaped, and gutted form.

The movement’s success has rendered it irrelevant as something to be considered in shaping culture (p. 20).

I’m still working through this book, but the seeming thesis is interesting. If you apply her thoughts on the feminist movements to other movements in culture, including Christianity, here’s what you get. The corporate world co-opts a movement and tries to sell it back to those who are a part of that movement or who might be attracted to it. By the time the product goes through the mediator of the corporate world, it inevitably changes into something that is different from the original movement. In the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, every institution becomes its opposite.

It shouldn’t shock us that corporate Christianity, or as a writer/publisher I know calls it, “the Jesus business,” is a watered down mess. It’s gone through the wrong mediators. And now it’s being sold back to us in a gutted form that has no power to actually shape culture.

Image-Free Language

Robert Alter makes the point that modern English translations of the Bible tend to abstract physical imagery and metaphor. There are a number of examples of this. For instance, the translating of the word “seed” as “offspring.” Or the phrase “hot of nose” being replaced with “wrath” or “hot anger” (see Ex. 32:19, Lam. 4:11 as a couple of examples among many). Or the phrase “he who pisses against the wall” being replaced with “male” (see 1 Sam. 25:22, 34 among other passages).

Alter writes,

One of the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew is extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrases

Gerald Hammond tartly observes, ‘eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor – based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.’

– Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, pp. xix, xx

One of the reasons I’ve found myself over the years struggling with metaphor, imagery, and imagination is that so much theological literature is devoid of it. This issue is compounded if our Bible translators follow the pattern. But if you look at the teachings of Jesus, and of the Bible as a whole, they’re remarkably full of imagery and metaphor. James Harleman imagines someone talking about Jesus’s sermons:

Why is this guy talking about a farmer? I wanted esoteric spiritual truths!

What’s this crap about mustard seeds?

Where are my bullet point steps for getting in good graces with God?

Why doesn’t this Jesus guy just give us an acronym with the keys for successful living?

-James Harleman, Cinemagogue, pp. 71-72

Jesus didn’t use image-free language. We need to learn how to go “on the body” (as minimalists writers put it) in our speech and how to understand such language in our reading and listening. Or else we may really end up saying, “What’s all this crap about mustard seeds?”

Full of Books and Worrying

Portia describes her father:

I feel sorrier for him than anybody I knows. I expect he done read more books than any white man in this town. He done read more books and he done worried about more things. He full of books and worrying. He done lost God and turned his back to religion. All his trouble come down to just that.

– Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, p. 49

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:12-13

We’ve added this book to our ‘recommended reading’ page.