Willpower Is Finite

Motivation, Productivity

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The subject of willpower is one of the most controversial in social psychology. For many years, a theory called “ego depletion” has defined the conventional wisdom. According to this theory, exercising willpower and resisting temptation (to get a snack, to check social media, to take a nap, etc.) is a cognitively demanding task that diminishes our ability to perform.

But that theory has recently been called into question due to widespread failure to replicate its findings. Newer research suggests that willpower may be more variable, and based on context and culture. For example, one study comparing 400 people from India to 450 from the United States found that Americans had a harder time with self-control in persisting on a task than those from India.

“The daily exertion of self-control to become stronger is a part of the philosophical traditions in eastern Asian context,” explained Veronika Job, one of the researchers. Ego depletion “depends on the cultural effects and context.”

Related research from Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton finds that participants who believe willpower is unlimited show fewer signs of ego depletion compared to those who believed there are limits. Even the originator of the “ego depletion” theory, Roy Baumeister has published a paper stating that “motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources” are varying contributors to willpower.

As researchers Michael Inzlicht and Brandon J. Schmeichel, who failed to replicate Baumeister’s theory, said, “[ego depletion] is not some mysterious result of lost self-control resources but rather the result of shifts in motivation, attention, and emotion.”

Instead: Build your willpower over time through positive affirmation and habit development.

Developing small habits, or rituals helps build willpower over time. Over the summer, I adopted a habit called “morning pages” recommended in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, where one writes three pages every morning without concern about skill or content. Doing this has gotten me into the routine of writing when I don’t feel like it, and I have seen both my motivation and the actual time I spend writing increase as a result. When an action becomes a habit, it doesn’t require any willpower at all. (For more on the importance of habit, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit).

Self-affirmation can also help increase willpower, according to a 2009 study. Try saying or writing a positive affirmation to yourself, or become mindful of your negative thoughts and revising them (turning can’ts into cans, for instance). It may sound corny, but it seems to work.

Although willpower is malleable, it’s important not to overdo work at the expense of leisure and relaxation. Taking breaks and making time to play will help you learn to like your habits enough to stick to them.

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