Christmas shopping, that is. We are (we think!), having wrapped it up just a couple of days ago. Almost nobody else we know is finished yet, so for the final installment of my pre-Christmas series before the Big Day, I'm going to offer some help with your mood. As the time grows shorter, the stress piles up, and you might think that's what I'm going to cover, but no. Stress is well-known and well-documented, and if you're suffering with it, nothing a virtual stranger can put in a blog post is going to help you. No, I'm going to work on the other end of the problem: Willpower.
There are just four shopping days left (check pulse here!), and the shorter the time gets, the more the stress rises. If you are feeling this stress, and who isn't, you are more likely to make impulse buys on the grounds that "I have to have something!" and these are the ones that are most likely to break the bank. Unless you're an aged and wise yoga master, you probably can't switch off the stress, so if you don't want to spend the next five years paying for something like this, your willpower must come to the fore.
There have been several recent studies on the subject of willpower, and not surprisingly, there are some conflicting findings. A recent piece on NPR talked about willpower being a finite stock of brain energy that is at its strongest early in the day, weakens as it's used, and can be built up by exercise, just like muscles.
According to this article, willpower is worn down by being in proximity to things that challenge it. If you are a fool for powdered donuts, then, the theory goes, having a box of powdered donuts open on the next desk will grind down your willpower simply by being there, and not just your donut resistance, either. It will wear down the willpower you need to keep slogging through that boring report that's due before you go home tonight. The implication here is that the worst thing you can do is to go shopping after work, when you have none left. Unfortunately, that's the time that you nine-to-five people have to do this, that or on the weekends, when the crowds alone will give you all the stress you could possibly want. How can you tell when your willpower is low? The warning signs are irritability, intense feelings about minor issues, and strong response to stimuli. But, there's hope. The same research suggests that your willpower can be given a temporary boost by a shot of glucose. A shot??? Relax. Glucose just means real sugar, so have a Coke, or chow down on one of those powdered donuts you've been trying to resist, and you'll be ready to face the malls with a chance of coming out with your bank account intact. I know, it's a paradox; you recharge your willpower by giving in. But, hey, if your willpower isn't being used to resist powdered donuts, then it isn't really a paradox... Is it? The study goes on to say that you can increase your willpower by exercising it. The exercise takes the form of consciously working to change some habit you have. If you slouch in a chair, hound yourself to sit up straight at all times; if you curse alot in your daily speech, focus on eliminating all the colorful words from your language. This is supposed to do it.
But wait, there's a counter study. Isn't there always? Who hasn't followed the debate on wine and coffee? One thing's certain, they're either good for you, or they aren't. The counter study was done at Stanford, and suggests that the material I've expounded on above is completely bogus. [I should point out here that the above material is from a legitimate study as well. I was driving as I heard it, and was unable to make notes, and I have unable to find the references; that shortcoming on my part doesn't mean there aren't any.] The Stanford study maintains that willpower is not a finite resource, and that you don't need breaks, or sugar, or to do your toughest chores in the morning. What you need to do is put your head down, and keep plugging.
Now, I don't like the Stanford study. After all, it suggests that when I take a break from a crappy chore, or indulge in a sugary snack, I don't gain anything from it, other than the knowledge that I'm a lazy bastard. Of course, just because I don't like it doesn't mean it isn't correct, and there was another aspect of it that played right into my religion and personal philosophy. That aspect was the discovery that people who believed that they had a lot of willpower, as a general rule, did, while those who believed more or less what the first study said, tended to take frequent breaks, feel defeated, and outright give up much more than the other group. You may have heard the old saying, "Whether you believe you can or believe you can't, you're probably right." Stanford suggests that that is absolutely true, that what you believe has a tremendous influence over what you are able to do.
Okay, it's time to hit the stores looking for that one last bargain. This is supposed to be helpful to you in keeping control of the purse strings. I realize there are two opposite findings presented here, but that's all right. Just adhere to whichever one seems more likely to work for your personality and beliefs, and you should be okay. Either have a big ol' root beer float, or take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you believe in you, and you should be fine. Hell, do both! There are an awful lot of people out there at this time of year especially, who are working hard to take your money. Some of them are willing to give honest value for it, and unfortunately, a good number of them aren't. Hopefully, what I've given you here are the tools you need to hang onto enough of your paycheck to buy food the week after Christmas.
Okay, I've done my bit. It's all on you now, so get out there and live life like you mean it!