Chicago’s Rollout–A Change of Habit (10)


This is the final post on the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.   It contains an important topic, namely, the importance of willpower.

Willpower is the ability to:

  • avoid giving into temptations for instant gratification to achieve a larger reward down the line
  • face a difficult or time-consuming task and get it done rather than putting it off (procrastinating)
  • finish a project once you’ve started

In what are called longitudinal studies on children, that is, studies that are done on a group of children and then followed up on years down the line, it has been shown that willpower, rather than intelligence, is a greater predictor of success.

If you take a group of children that have roughly the same intelligence level, and see how they do compared to children that have lower or higher levels of intelligence, it is not how smart they are that determined their success at school.   It is the amount of willpower they show in relation to their studies which is a greater predictor to how well they do in school.

I can tell you this from personal experience.   In grade school, tests showed that I was very intelligent, but frankly I was lazy.   I did the minimum amount of work to get by.  Now that was okay when I was going to elementary school and even junior high.   But starting in high school and then going on to college, I was not performing at the level I was capable of.

At the end of my freshman year in college, my parents exhibited what would be called “tough love” and said that if I didn’t get mostly A’s in my sophomore year, they would no longer be paying my tuition for school.    I continued my habits, more interested in partying than pursuing academics, and needless to say, I didn’t get mostly A’s.   My dad said, “if you continue on like this, you’re going to graduate Magna Cum Lousy!”   They turned off the money spigot, and I was forced to leave school and find work to earn my own money to go back.

I got help from grandmother in terms of finding work in the city of Chicago and a place to live.   I lived in the Prairie Shores apartment near Mercy Hospital on King Drive and took the bus to work, at an AT&T Office (it was called Ma Bell at the time before the breakup in 1984) doing data entry.   I earned money for two years and then went back to school and finished my degree.   After having to pay my own way, you can be sure that I got good grades, and continued on to get my Master’s Degree (and getting all A’s while doing it).

It was a painful lesson, and I often wonder how much more and how much faster I would have advanced if I had learned the techniques of willpower while I was in grade school.

The interesting finding in the book Power of Habit is that willpower is like a muscle.  If you are helping a friend move furniture on the weekend, you probably won’t go and work out that morning because you don’t want your muscles to tire out too quickly.  In a similar way, if you have something important that you want to do (such a starting a new habit) you should probably do it towards the beginning of the day, because your willpower is kind of like a mental muscle and will also be stronger at the beginning of the day.

That is why Brian Tracy wrote his book Eat that Frog, one of my favorite books of his.  Eat that Frog refers to a quote from Mark Twain:  Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day!   In the book, Brian Tracy takes this important observation about willpower and applies it to how you should organize your day.    Take the hardest, more unpleasant task you’ve got and make it the FIRST thing you do every day.    You’ll have more willpower at the beginning of the day to tackle the project.   If you wait until the end of the day, you won’t have the energy, mentally or otherwise, to tackle such a big project, and worse, you’ll get into the bad habit of procrastination.

So try to build a habit by doing it at the beginning of your day rather than at the end.  For example, I practice foreign languages with the Duolingo app every morning before I get out of bed.   I used to try to do it at the END of the day, after I got everything done at work and I came home and ate dinner.    However, sometimes I was so exhausted that I forgot to do my language practice and it was hard for me to work up a streak of more than a 100 or so days doing the app.   Right now, I have a streak that is 1297 days along (quickly approaching the 1300 mark), which is over three and a half years of doing language practice every morning.   I can attribute that success to the fact that I do not get out of bed until I finish that day’s language practice!

So learn from The Power of Habit (and incidentally, Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!) and build your willpower up just like you would your muscles at the gym.   Train a little bit at a time, and do your “exercise” towards the beginning of the day when you have the most energy!    If you keep it up, you will build not just muscle, but stamina, and be able to tackle great projects with your well-developed willpower!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: