Can People Learn Willpower?

Spoiler: YES.

I recently started reading Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit (great read if you’re interested in the topic), and it’s gotten me thinking about how educators can use the principles of habit change and formation to positively influence learners’ decision-making and self-discipline.

In Chapter 5, “Starbucks and the Habit of Success,” Duhigg highlights how many companies, including Starbucks, realized that one of the biggest gaps in employee knowledge is how to build and exert willpower, so they’ve developed entire curricula around building up this and other success skills. While some may discount large companies whose motives are largely tied to their bottom lines, these skills are still important and Duhigg illustrates this with an example of a Starbucks manager, Travis Leach, who was rudderless and angry until he was employed by Starbucks after high school and had the support he needed to develop these skills.

While Travis Leach’s story is inspiring, it exposes an issue in educational. In education circles, we’ll discuss the importance of success skills, and maybe even broach the topic with learners, but – I’ll speak for myself – I’ve never had the knowledge or been aware of the resources to actually help learners develop willpower and other success habits. How is a company like Starbucks capable of cultivating these vital life skills in a matter of a few years when most learners finish their entire K-12 experience without them?

Yes, there are learners who develop them on their own, but what about students like Travis, who just needed some guidance in order to change his entire life? From my own observations, I’d argue the majority of graduating seniors would benefit significantly from this kind of learning.

How Do You Teach Willpower?

Duhigg summarizes the research as such: willpower is like a muscle in both good ways and bad.

The bad news: like any muscle, you can overexert your willpower, become fatigued, and lapse into poor decision making habits that have become deeply ingrained over time. Some studies have shown, however, that willpower drains more slowly when people feel they are truly in control of their decisions and it’s their agency that has led to their good decision-making. The implication for educators is that providing more agency for learners is not only a potential moral imperative, but can improve efficiency of learning and self-efficacy tied to learners’ reflections that they’ve made good decisions.

The good news: like any muscle, you can “strengthen” your willpower so you have more throughout the day. Willpower, conceptually, is using your reasoning to overcome the habituated responses that may make you feel good in the short-term but don’t serve you in the medium- or long-term. In order to improve willpower, you need to give your reasoning a rest, because reasoning is a complex task that exhausts your brain. (Why waste your daily brain energy on reasoning about things that can be easy, automatic good decisions?) No matter how hard you train your willpower, a fatigued brain is always more likely to go for the short-term, immediate pleasure. This means you need to reduce your brain’s power consumption by automating positive behavior with new habits.

How do you help learners do this? Without going into too much depth here, you can help learners:

  1. Identify the habits impeding the learner’s growth.
  2. Determine what cues are launching these habits (a concept Duhigg discusses at length in other chapters).
  3. Determine what emotional reward the learner is obtaining from this habit.
  4. Decide what, the next time said cue occurs, the learner is going to do in place of the old habit to still obtain an emotional reward.

Eventually, if the learner keeps conscientiously changing his routine, this pattern will become ingrained as habit.

Can intentional habit formation be used for everything learners do in a classroom? Not unless you’re trying to turn learners into automatons. Helping learners purposefully develop habits is best applied when learners have developed habits and are unconsciously hurting their own growth by not editing their automatic scripts. With that said, good learning habits, such as those that aid willpower, are foundational to helping learners become independent, self-fulfilled people, just like Travis.

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