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If You Want To Focus More, Never Try Harder, Science Says

If You Want To Focus More, Never Try Harder, Science Says

Often when we try to focus on a task or avoid temptation we try to use all our willpower. We invest all our energy into concentrating on one thing or not thinking about the temptation. However, a study has shown that when we do this we deplete our willpower. The harder we try the more we end up fatigued and out of strength, just like the participants in the experiment.

The Study

In 1996, Roy Baumeister together with his Case Western Reserve University colleagues examined the workings of willpower. To do so they created an experiment that was somewhat cruel. They engaged participants in a food challenge that aimed to deplete the participants’ will power.

The experiment involved 67 study participants. The participants were led into a room that had the aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies. The actual cookies and other chocolate-flavored confectionary were then brought into the room.

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Some of the participants were given permission to eat the chocolate sweets while the participants who formed the experimental condition group were told to eat radishes instead.

Many of the people who were left to eat radishes “exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them,” the scientists wrote in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper.

The Experimental Results

After the cookie and radish part of the experiment Baumeister’s team gave the participants another test that was seemingly unrelated. This test involved solving a persistence-testing puzzle. The participants were led to believe that they were undertaking an intelligence test but the real test was to see how long the students would persist before giving up.

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The participants who had been allowed to eat the chocolate treats worked on the puzzle for an average of 20 minutes. The radish eaters didn’t last nearly this long. On average they gave up after only 8 minutes.

Thus, those people who had to resist the confectionary and eat the plain vegetables could not engage in a second demanding task. Their willpower was already drained and they were too tired.

Interpretation Of The Results

For most of history it was commonly believed that willpower is a virtue that you either possess or lack. This however, is not the case as some days we have more willpower to, say for example do a good job at work.

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The central finding of this study was a breakthrough.

It was learnt that: “self-control is a general strength that’s used across different sorts of tasks  — and it could be depleted. This proved that self-regulation is not a skill to be mastered or a rote function that can be performed with little consequence. It’s like using a muscle: After exercising it, it loses its strength, gets fatigued, and becomes ineffectual, at least in the short-term.”

In other words, willpower isn’t a skill at all. It is actually more like a muscle. And like other muscles in the body, willpower gets exhausted from overuse.

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How To Improve Your Willpower

The good news is that willpower can be strengthened with practice.

In his article Colin Robertson writes: “The key is to focus on simply taking it one goal at a time. When you focus on one goal at a time, you actually strengthen your willpower!”

If we try to do too much, like, for example go on a diet and try to focus intensely on our work we end up depleting our willpower. We are like the radish eaters we took too much on ourselves and ended up getting fatigued.

It is like going to the gym and trying to bench press an enormous weight; you will end up failing. If, however, you start slowly with a smaller weight you can gradually build up muscle strength and in the end you will be bench pressing heavy weights.

Summation

So next time you want to focus on a task or avoid temptation try starting small. Give yourself bit size manageable goals and by achieving them over time you will strengthen your willpower and in the end you will have the power to accomplish more.

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Rebecca Beris

Rebecca is a wellness and lifestyle writer at Lifehack.

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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