The Willpower Mystery
We all know the feeling. Some days, you have a project you know you need to work on, but find it impossible to summon the energy needed to close your e-mail and get to work. It seems so simple. Click the “X” in the corner. Open the word processor document. Start typing. But you might as well be considering knocking off a quick triathalon. Your leaden, sluggish, no-motivation mood overwhelms.
On other occasions, however, you welcome the challenge. Time to work? No problem!
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University, has been studying this question for over a decade. In a recent paper, published in the Journal of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Baumeister reviews what his work, and similar studies by others, have revealed about that elusive trait we call self-control.
In this post, I summarize the main findings of this research and conclude with some practical tips for re-aligning your daily habits to leverage the conclusions.
The Strength Model of Self-Control
In a seminal 1994 paper, Baumeister introduced a hypothesis that overturned the established thinking on willpower. He proposed that self-control might depend on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.
Up to this point, most scientists assumed that self-control was a behavioral mode; a cognitive schema activated under certain conditions and not under others. This approach, for example, might blame fear of failure for your procrastination. The mental loop of failing prevents the juke box of your mind from flipping over to that ever-popular record: “productive work.”
Baumeister disagreed. And he challenged this notion with a simple experiment:
- Two groups are given a task. The first group gets a task that requires self-control (e.g., memorizing sequences of numbers). The second group gets a neutral task.
- Next, both groups are given a task that requires self-control. Their performance is measured.
According to the cognitive schema hypothesis, the first group should have the appropriate scheme activated in the first phase and therefore perform better in the second phase. In the experiment, however, the opposite occurred. The group that performed a neutral task in the first phase outperformed the other group in the second phase. This fit Baumeister’s theory. The first group had depleted a resource that the second group did not.
Chocolate, Radishes, and Ego Depletion
Subsequent experiments reinforced this limited resource hypothesis for a variety of traits related to self-control. One of the most interesting studies presented three groups with a plate full of both chocolate and radishes. The first group was told only to eat the radishes. The second group was told to eat chocolate. The third was allowed to eat whatever they wanted.
Next, they were all given an unsolvable task. The radish group gave up after around 8 minutes. The chocolate and no rules groups, on the other hand, both lasted closer to 20 minutes.
The term ego depletion was coined to describe this “state of diminished resources following exertion of self-control.” Further experiments helped rule out other potential contributing factors. Through careful controls, for example, researchers were able to show that these depletion effects did not come simply from subjects getting bored with the task or developing a belief that they were not good at it.
No matter what angle they attacked it from, the same conclusion arose: Self-control is a limited resource. After a while, your tanks will run empty, like a marathoner’s muscles failing in the 20th mile. This cannot be avoided.
Improving Ego Depletion
Even though ego depletion is a reality, you shouldn’t give up hope. Following our athlete analogy, through practice and control over your environment you can still work to reduce and delay these effects to a significant degree.
Here are the strategies that Baumeister, and others, have found to be effective:
- “Just as exercise can make muscles stronger, there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.” Studies show, for example, that introducing a small number of targeted, regular self-control activities in your daily routine — such as “spending money or exercise” — can generate improvements in unrelated areas such as “studying and household chores.”
- “When people expect to have to exert self-control later, they will curtail current performance more severely.” If you spread work out over more days, you’ll be able to accomplish more in each sitting.
- “People can exert self-control despite ego depletion if the stakes are high enough.” This is how you are able to get through those all-nighters. However: “there are levels of depletion beyond which people may be unable to control themselves…despite what’s at stake.” Which is why the paper you finish at 4 am sucks something fierce.
In addition, the following activities or behaviors have also been shown to to “moderate or counteract the effects of ego depletion”:
- Being in a state of positive emotion such as humor.
- Having a detailed plan before beginning the task.
- Cash incentives.
- Replenishing glucose. (Subjects given lemonade did better than those given an identical tasting, sugar-free substitute.)
The Implications for You
The main conclusion I draw from these analyses: you must treat your daily work like a competitive athletic event. Your self-control is a muscle. If you don’t tend to it through rigorous training and careful schedules of use, you’ll perform well below your potential.
The following practical tips can help you re-align your work habits to this reality:
- Spread out your work. Marathon sessions, spread over many consecutive hours, will prove impossible to sustain unless you have a looming deadline. If you want to avoid falling into a pattern of doing all of your work in panicked all-nighters, start early and work in small chunks.
- Have a plan. The more specific your plan the easier it will be to finish the task. Never again head off to the library with only the vague intention to “study.”
- Practice self-control throughout the day. Many students balked at my advice to “make your bed” in my first book. But there was, it seems, a method to my madness. The more daily practice you get with exerting small doses of self-control — from waking up at a regular time to getting to the gym — the easier it will be to summon your willpower during important projects.
- Eat good meals. You might feel heroic skipping breakfast or pushing through with your work until 9 before grabbing dinner, but the lack of food energy will tank your ability to actually accomplish hard work during these times. Taking 20 minutes to grab an energy-rich meal might save you hours on your total workload.
In the final accounting, the best advice is to pay attention to your own body. Observe when you get tired and when you are able to get a lot done. Experiment with your habits in an effort to increase the time you spend in the latter state. Above all, this research should make one thing clear: the worst strategy is to have none at all. If you work only when you feel like it, or deadlines demand, and just let the day roll past, you’re likely to spend more time than you’d like battling an empty willpower reserve.
(Hat Tip: Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Blog Post)