Do we have unlimited willpower, or is it a finite resource?
Most people believe that willpower is a finite resource. It is a “common sense” position that has become a cultural meme. The idea really took off in 1998, when a study coined the concept of “ego depletion”. The results found that subjects who resisted eating chocolates went on to have difficulty concentrating on a puzzle task.
Some research even showed that drinking sugary drinks boosted willpower. Personally, I’d take that as evidence of a sugar addiction.
In the ego depletion model, you have a limited supply of willpower. Every action you take to resist temptation drains your mental energies. As you deplete your supply, you’re more likely to give in later.
It’s not hard to see how this idea has affected our culture. Newcomers to fitness will work out, using willpower, and then immediately “reward themselves” with an unhealthy meal. Most projects fail, as people lose hope early on – their supply of willpower can only last so long. There’s a common conception that “I can’t be perfect”, or “I can’t keep it up forever”. People start, give in to temptation, and then quit.
Willpower & Perception
Newer research finds that willpower is linked to perception. Those that believe willpower is unlimited… end up having more willpower. Those that believe in the ego depletion model end up running out of steam.
How To Guard & Strengthen Your Willpower
The same research shows that telling people willpower is unlimited increases their willpower. (You’re welcome).
How does this work? When you believe that willpower is limited, every problem becomes a sign that you’re running out of gas. If you feel the slightest fatigue, you begin to give up. When you believe willpower is unlimited, you ignore negative signals. Because you assume responsibility when you think this way, you take pride in your agency, and push through problems.
So how do you increase your willpower?
- Recognize that willpower is all in the mind. You choose how much willpower you have.
- Take signs of fatigue, and any problems, as challenges rather than setbacks. Reframe the issues.
- Unplug from the psychological assault of modern advertising. Ads spread the meme that willpower is limited, creating a problem that is ‘solved’ by selling you a product. Reject messaging designed to bring you down.
Fans of ego depletion like to say that “willpower is a muscle”. Sure! But yours is a muscle that gets stronger every time, and only rests when you choose to. Believe in the science, and unlock your potential.