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Willpower aka ego depletion

December 1, 2015

Willpower.  We all have it.  We were all born with it.  We all use it every day.  It is a choice we make.  It is self discipline.

We face challenges to our willpower every day.  Do I eat the cookies sitting there or not?  How about that nice cold beverage?  Do I react to the person who is being unkind or baiting me?  The customer who is being rude or extra demanding is testing me, how should I react?  I know I should get that task done, but I will wait until later to do it.

It is hard dealing with what seems to be a barrage of tests of your willpower.  You probably know someone who seems to have no willpower.  They just do whatever comes to mind, whether it is good for them or not.  But most of us have some reservoir of willpower that we use day-to-day.

Some people believe willpower is like a muscle.  In that they mean you can use it up until the point of fatigue and then it will not function as well.  Psychology professor Roy Baumeister and colleagues have done numerous experiments showing where a person who had to perform a hard mental task subsequently had an impaired the ability to control oneself later.  This theory helps explain why we fail when presented with the chance to answer those questions posed above.  We all have experienced “giving in” to our weaker self.

But the studies also note that, like a muscle, you can build willpower up, make it stronger, with practice.

One idea is to build additional knowledge about a subject.  Having that knowledge allows you to lessen the effort required to decide, so you won’t have to use your willpower as much.  For instance, let’s say you are trying to improve your diet.  If you studied more about nutrition and its impact on your body, you might be better prepared to know that certain food alternatives are bad for you.  The food decision becomes an intellectual one, rather than a discipline one. In this case, “knowledge is power”.

Another idea is to try to make your toughest decisions earlier in the day when your willpower “muscle” is at its strongest. In my example above, you could plan your meals for the day at the start of the day,  In theory, you are stronger, so you can make good food decisions (rather than getting to the end of the day and saying “I am too tired to cook something, I will just go to Taco Bell”).  In a similar vein, some people recommend you have your workout clothes by your bed.  When you wake up in the morning, they are already waiting for you and you are more apt to use them.

Finally, building awareness around your willpower is an effective strategy.  Some deliberation around a decision, including thinking about your use (or lack thereof) of your willpower might make you better at using willpower.

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