Radishes or Cookies?

RadishesToday's blog post was written by Dr. Grace Wilson and orginally published in the January 2017 issue of the Character Core magazine. Dr. Grace Wilson is a Marriage & Family Therapist who is passionate about helping families live fulfilling, healthy lives. Dr. Wilson currently serves as a Marriage and Family Counselor at Great Plains Family Medicine in Oklahoma City, OK


In the 1990s, social psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment to examine willpower. He brought his participants one by one into a room with a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. He instructed one group to sample the cookies, while another group was told to try the radishes and leave the cookies. Then, each participant was given 30 minutes to finish a difficult puzzle.

Baumeister found that the group that ate the cookies before starting the puzzle worked on the task for about 11 minutes longer on average than the group that ate the radishes. So what was happening? His theory was that the group that used more willpower to resist the cookies initially (the radish-eating group) had less fortitude to continue working on the difficult task. Therefore, he proposed that willpower (or discipline) is a finite resource that we can exhaust.

Can We Improve Our Discipline?

More recent studies, though, challenge this idea. Researchers have found that many things can influence our ability to be disciplined or self-controlled when we’re completing tasks: our perceptions of difficult problems, personal beliefs about willpower, incentives that are received, feedback on task performance, and even changes in mood.

Set Yourself Up for Success

So what should we conclude from this? Willpower and discipline are, by definition, hard work! There are certain conditions that can make it harder for us to choose the right behaviors that we know will help us reach our goals. So set yourself up for success! Prioritize your tasks, and choose to complete things that are less appealing earlier in the day or when you’re in a good mood—when you have more reserves of discipline remaining.

Consider your personal beliefs about the difficulty of your tasks and your ability to complete them. If those things are holding you back—challenge them! Set goals you really believe you can accomplish, and have confidence that you can follow through and carry out your plan. Decide ahead of time what external incentives you can use to reward yourself—not just for reaching a goal, but for times when you exercise discipline and make right choices along the way.

Discipline itself is something to be proud of! Celebrate and commend yourself for choosing the behaviors that will help you reach your goals.

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