Every time I think about this article in the New York Times, I find myself agreeing more with it. The basic premise of the article is that in the short run, one has a limited “supply” of willpower, and by every activity you do that consumes willpower, you are reducing your ability to do other similar activities. In the longer run, the article goes on to explain, you can increase your willpower over time. This you do by keeping on pushing yourself marginally on the willpower scale.
Back when I first read this article (it was written this April), I used it to justify to myself as to why a normal management consulting job requires heavy amount of willpower. The argument I put forth back then was that in a mgmt consulting job (the kind of stuff done by McKinsey, A T Kearney, etc) you have to work for long hours, mostly in the presence of members from the client team, and a large amount of work you do is mostly routine, and boring.
Given that the work is mostly boring, it consumes willpower to keep doing it. The long hours mean that you need to keep doing it for a long time, which means a high rate of willpower consumption for a long time – making your daily consumption of willpower really high. Typical work usually involves your exhausting close to your daily supply of willpower. One option would be to periodically recharge your willpower batteries – by indulging in activities that don’t require any willpower, and will also go into removing your frustration with the depleting willpower.
One of the most high-pressure jobs, one that consumes copious amounts of willpower, is trading. Though the hours aren’t too long, the rate of consumption is so high that you easily come close to the daily limit. However, traders usually manage by frequently recharging their willpower batteries. By indulging in activities such as shouting, screaming, throwing down the phone and breaking pencils. This way, they manage to survive until the time they get paid their bonuses (assuming they get a bonus – which is not the case with most traders this year).
The clincher with consulting is that you are usually based at the client’s location. This means that you must behave. And thus, a major source of recharging willpower batteries is gone! Hence, the only way you can survive in that profession is if you have an extremely large daily supply of willpower.
Every time I think about this NYTimes article, I also realize that my willpower is less than average. Though I must say that it’s been steadily increasing, it’s nowhere close to the average level. Initially, in school and college, I managed to get by because the amount of willpower demanded wasn’t very high, and within my limits. Then, I started working, and got exposed.
There was this guy called Yaso in my class at IIT who on one fine day started writing with his left hand (he is naturally righthanded). He explained that he was doing this to build up his willpower. I don’t know how successful his attempt was, but I clearly remember we’d made a hell of a lot of fun of him for this. Maybe I should check back with him. And start implementing some measures for improving long-run willpower that the article talks about.