This is a re-written version of an older post and the second my series on habit formation and self improvement. I found the original version a little confusing.


Much of this post is based on a book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It is not a self help book. It is a book by a psychologist and a science writer. They delve into actual scientific studies about willpower, impulse control, etc. The birth of this science was a study often referred to as the Marshmallow Study. You can read the details at the link. The gist is that children where tested if they could resist a treat for greater reward in the future. At a later point, researchers went and tracked down the kids as adults. Almost universally the kids that had been able to resist the temptation had become successful and happy adults. This led to thirty years of studies and debate as to the role of self-esteem*, impulse control, upbringing, etc in success. I highly recommend reading the book. I am going extrapolate a lot from what I read and not go into the specific details covered in the book.

Two Concepts

Understanding two important concepts can really help us on our quest for self improvement. Our brains use up fuel or power to do anything. Habits are ingrained behaviors that take very little effort to continue and can be hard to break once established.

Our Brains Need Fuel

Our bodies take the food and drink we consume and turn them into energy. A bunch of other stuff also happens but that’s not important for my point. A  lot of the energy goes to power our brains. About 20% of the energy our body uses, gets sent to the brain. This is way more than any other organ. 

Every time we do anything with our brains we use up some of this energy. Learning a new task at work, resisting the temptation to eat a brownie, trying to win an argument in a meeting, these all take up the amount of available fuel your brain can access. We replenish that fuel through eating. Those snicker commercials aren’t far off.  You aren’t you when you are hungry. You have a harder time doing things and making decisions.  When and what we eat can help keep our brains stay fueled. Foods that release their energy slowly, such as nuts, can keep us going while sugar will give a quick but short burst of brain power.

This is why losing weight can actually be very difficult. You want your body to use the energy that it has stored as fat. In order to make this happen you need to consume a calorie deficit.  Doing this means your brain might not have the fuel it needs to help resist a doughnut at that early morning meeting. This in no way means weight loss is impossible. It takes some tricks and planning. 

The research points to two interesting caveats. There does seem to be an inherited amount of willpower. Some people are just born with more than others. Most importantly it can be trained like a muscle. They studied people who showed the attributes of having a lot of willpower. These people did things  that “flexed” their willpower.  Stand still for long periods of time hold you hand for as long as possible in a bowl of ice water will all, over time, increase your willpower. It seems that exercising your willpower makes your brain more efficient at using the available fuel 

Willpower can be described as a combination of the amount of fuel our brains have available and the efficiency in which it is used. 

Habits Conserve Brain Fuel


One of the most important things they found about successful, was that they seemed to use as little willpower as possible. They designed their lives around not having to use a lot of energy for the mundane thus saving their power for the important decisions and moments in the day. Many people in leadership positions who are making important decisions throughout the day do not pick out their own clothes in the morning. They either Steve Jobs  it and wear the same thing everyday, or maybe they have someone pick out clothes for them. I’ve taken to just lining up my work shirts in the closet and just going down the line each morning. Thus I use little to know brain power in the morning. 

Habits are simply behaviors ingrained through repetition over time. To do a habit takes little to almost no energy. In fact it takes a conscious effort to not do a habit you have formed. If you have made the habit of always brushing your teeth in the morning it will actually take more effort to not do it. Obviously, habits can be either beneficial or detrimental. You can have a habit of going over all the things that happened in a day that made you thankful or joyful, or you can have a habit of dwelling on all the things that made you made or resentful.

I am convinced of the need to create  conscious positive habits in order to live a good life.  In the next post in this series I’ll tell you about the practical steps I have chosen to take to create good habits.

*The Self Esteem Myth

The early chapters of the willpower book deal with the self esteem myth. There has been a prevalent belief for awhile now that if a person feels good about themselves they will perform better and actually be a better person. A series of studies in the late70’s/early 80s showed that successful people had high self esteem and the unsuccessful had a low self esteem.  It was surmised that if we elevated everybody’s self esteem performance would increase.

The same psychologist (not gonna bother looking up his name) who began the self esteem movement continued to study the issue.  By the 90s he realized he had made a big mistake. To simplify it, the people who were good at things had a high self esteem because they were good at things not the other way around. They found almost no improvement in performance based on increasing self esteem. In fact if people were below average at something and you increased their self esteem, they became worse at those things.