Willpower as a Limited Resource
In January, I posted an article titled The Science of Procrastination. It reported on the work of Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University. Baumeister had demonstrated an effect called ego-depletion. The idea was simple: self-control depends on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.
The experiments were elegant and convincing. Give a subject two tasks that require self-control and they’ll do worst on the second. Replace the first task with something that requires no self-control and their performance on the second increases.
The conclusion: willpower is a limited resource. The more you use, the more you lose. So use it wisely during the day.
A Problem Emerges
In February of this year, an article appeared in the journal of Social and Personality Psychology Compass. It was written by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, a pair of pioneering social psychologists from the University of Rochester, who, over the past three decades, have innovated our understanding of motivation.
Their message to Baumeister: your experiments are nice but your conclusions, unfortunately, aren’t quite right.
Enter Self-Determination Theory
Ryan and Deci have been amassing, for more than a decade, a substantial body of evidence supporting a model of energy and vitality that they call Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
This model overturns Baumeister’s “willpower is like a muscle” message, and provides us with a more nuanced view of why sometimes we’re energized when we face work, and why other times we are very much not.
Self-Control is Hard; Except When it’s Not
Ryan and Deci’s SDT framework describes how we maintain and enhance vitality. The concept of vitality captures, roughly, physical and mental energy. Among other things, it’s often associated with “vigor,” feelings of positive affect,” and “calm energy.” In short: the opposite of the mood that fuels procrastination.
The SDT model makes several predictions about what affects our vitality levels. Perhaps the single prediction most relevant to our discussion of willpower:
- Autonomous self-regulation (decisions made based on your own deeply held interests) is less depleting than activities that are controlled (decisions made based on other sources, from societal pressures to external control).
Ryan and Deci’s response to Baumeister is that self-control can deplete willpower. But, if the activity is autonomously self-regulated — if it derives from a deeply held interest or value — then willpower (as described by vitality) will not be depleted; in fact, it might even be enhanced.
In short: the effect self-control has on your willpower (vitality) depends not on how much work you’re doing, but the ultimate reason why you’re doing it.
Putting the Theory to the Test
In a series of experiments, conducted in 1999 by Ryan and Deci, along with Glen Nix and John Manly, also of the University of Rochester, this hypothesis was put to the test.
Experiment #1. The subjects were given the Wisconsin Card Sort, a standard cognitive problem-solving task. Half the subjects were self-directed. They could solve the task however the wanted. The other half were other-directed. They had to follow the strategy of the previous subject.
Happiness and vitality were tested before and after the task. As predicted by SDT: vitality decreased for the other-directed subjects but stayed the same for the self-directed. Happiness increased for both cases. (People are temporarily happy when they do well.)
Experiment #2. The researchers investigated a more subtle form of control. They turned their attention from external control (the experimenter giving instructions) to internal control (in this case: ego.) The subjects, who, like in the first experiment, were college students, were given a series of puzzles to accomplish. The task-directed group were given some background on the artist and told about the comics in which the puzzles originally appeared. The ego-directed group, on the other hand, was told that the puzzles were increasingly being used to measure intelligence and perceptual skills. A story was weaved about the Air Force using the puzzle to screen pilots. Both groups were given positive feedback throughout the experiment.
Once again, the non-controlled, task-directed group had vitality stay strong, while the ego-directed group crashed and burned.
Same task. Same positive feedback. No external control in either case. By simply turning the framing of the experiment to one of supporting ego, the task became not about a freely made decision or interest, but, instead about the maintence of others’ perception of the subject’s abilities. By doing so, the task became a willpower drain.
Implications for You
As college students, we’re quick to blame feelings of burnout or mental malaise on the amount or type of work we face. (“Not another paper! I’m tired of this!”)
The work of Ryan and Deci, however, gives us new insight into the source of these student slumps: The “why” matters. We can harness this insight to generate a collection of concrete strategies to avoid such low points:
- As much as possible, engineer your student life to make the source of your actions intrinsic — that is, freely chosen and connected to an honest interest.
- Run fast as hell from any large commitment that you feel like you’re expected or have to do. Over time, these will keep draining your vitality until you spiral into a burnout.
- Be careful about asking for advice from authority figures. Hearing, for example, a parent telling you that you should follow a certain path can have the effect of making the related actions feel controlled — even if you might have arrived at the same conclusion on your own. Mentors are safer as they exist outside of an existing framework of control in your life.
- Spend the time necessary to figure out what’s important to you and what’s not. Without real values, almost any activity will be arbitrary or controlled by outside forces.
- Leave your schedule open enough that, on a regular basis, you can pursue random, interesting opportunities as they arise. These provide the vitality equivalent of booster shots; keeping your zest for life strong.
Procrastination remains inevitable. But the hope provided by Ryan and Deci is that for many activities it’s allure can be weakened. When you’re doing something that you choose to do, it’s just not that bad.
Not surprisingly, this empirical research resonates well with the optimal lifestyle approach described by my anecdotal experiences. I’m talking, of course, about the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. When you read the story of a ZV-practioner like Tyler, with his defiant choice of a classics major, a focus on research he enjoys, the lack of resume-fodder activities, and his open, random-event rich schedule, it’s hard not to imagine Ryan and Deci smiling with approval.
Keep these experiments in mind next time you feel like your college schedule is becoming too much to bear. Remind yourself often of what is perhaps the most important question you can learn to ask: why?