Your willpower is a limited resource. Sure, you can make it last forever – but at the cost of you health and wellness. It turns out that willpower is an exhaustible resource that declines as we use it. In other words, our ability to exert self-control and persevere in difficult endeavours relies on energy—and when this energy is depleted, so too are our good intentions and self-regulation abilities.
Willpower, in this sense, is a finite resource that gradually depletes until we are incapable of exerting self-control and persevering with difficult tasks.
Research into willpower
In fact, researchers have demonstrated that willpower is a limited resource. In one study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, participants who faced a difficult decision to refrain from cheating on tests were revealed to have less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area thought to be involved in self-control. This is the same area where it has been noted that increased alcohol consumption has been associated with decreased ACC activity as participants get drunker and less able to reason well.
The research shows that the ACC areas of the brain are involved in exerting self-control when we face difficult behavioural decisions such as resisting temptations or sticking to self-regulatory goals. As we use our self-control, we suffer from willpower depletion. After a time, we become less able to manage difficult tasks and we cannot resist the temptation to take the easy way out.
In fact, research has shown that being faced with an immediate temptation or distraction will consume approximately 50% of your willpower reserves—a constraint known as ego depletion. So if you use up your reserves of willpower first thing in the morning, things will only get harder from there until you have replenished your supply with rest and relaxation.
A more recent study by University of British Columbia researchers shows that it takes less energy to resist temptation if you are in a positive mood—in essence, the benefits of being happy override the detrimental effects of being faced with temptation. The researchers note that when we are already happy, it is easier for us to engage in self-control and exhibit better self-control than when we are in a negative mood.
So, if willpower is a limited resource, what can we do?
Well, willpower is only needed on tasks that we don’t enjoy, or tasks that aren’t already a habit for us. So, we can remove ourselves from situations that require significant willpower and become more resilient.
For example, if you avoid going to the gym at a time when you are exhausted or bored, all you need to do is remove yourself from that situation and you don’t need any willpower at all.
When we use willpower
Willpower is needed to persevere with tasks we don’t enjoy; if we remove ourselves from these situations entirely, we need no more willpower.
We can see what happens when people continue to exert self-control when they have depleted their supply of brain energy required for self-control and perseverance. If they stick it out, they will become less productive because their brains simply can’t cope with battling temptation for too long before giving in.
Think back on a time when you were doing anything you enjoyed. Did you need to use your willpower at all? If the answer is no, then you kept your precious resource.
Reframing: what are your daily mental dollars?
On the other hand, if someone asked you to complete a stressful task or stay away from temptation—something requiring self-control—you would be using “mental dollars”.
“Mental dollars” (or mental energy) is a concept that I came up with a number of years ago. The idea is that you have a certain amount of “mental dollars” to spend in a day. Some tasks take nothing, some give more dollars back, but some tasks cost you a lot. They take significant amounts from your limited willpower reserve, leaving you a bit more tired for the rest of the day. You can only get back some of those dollars by taking breaks and doing the things you love.
If you are always working on tasks that are high stress for you, you could be a willpower deficit.
Here’s an analogy: if you have $1,000 in the bank and you know that every month you need $500 for the mortgage or rent, then each month there’s no problem. If instead, each month there’s $500 left in the bank—and we don’t know how much we’re going to need—then, and only then will we be sure it will last for a whole month. Each time we spend “mental dollars”, we drain our reserves; if we only do things that cost us nothing, our resources remain full and unfailing.
Putting energy back into your system
Some of the activities which will give you more energy back for your day include:
- sleep, the great healer
- hearing good news
- seeing something beautiful
- settling a dispute
- physical activity and particularly regular exercise
- eating healthy food (junk food costs you energy!)
- completing a short term goal or some long term goals you’ve been working on
- meditation or deep breathing
- excitement of any kind
- laughter for any reason
If you do any of these activities, you will feel more energy in your body and brain. You will find that your “mental dollars” are costing less all day long! It’s important to do some of these every day.
So what have we learned? Willpower is exhaustible and it takes energy to resist temptation. If someone asks you to complete a stressful task or stay away from temptation—something requiring self-control—you would be using “mental dollars”.
Allowing yourself enough time
Willpower and self-control are related, but not identical. The difference between the two ideas lies in how to define willpower. One approach, articulated by psychologist Roy Baumeister, defines willpower like this:
This is why it’s important to avoid workaholism. The best way to avoid this trap is to leave room for mental breaks in every day, including at least one hour each day where you do something you absolutely love (e.g., play a video game, read a book, etc.).
Allowing your mind to settle on something else for a while allows you to relax and recharge. It gives your mind a break from work it’s been doing, so when you return to your work, you’re more productive.
So, what tasks are you doing today which require willpower? Maybe make a list?
…go on, you can do that right now.