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Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?

States of mind


Back in April I talked about this post on the New York Times blog, which seems to tell us that if we exert self-control in one area, it can cause us to have less self-control in other areas. Since then, I’ve come across a lot of information–studies, people’s stories of their experiences, my own experiences, books, and so on–that have helped me understand willpower a bit better. With this more informed perspective, I’d like to come back to the subject of self-control fatigue and ask: does willpower really get used up?

One goal at a time: focus, not fatigue
First, there’s one area where it’s become clear that not fatigue, but focus is the key. In the April post, I said “If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time.” Much information I’ve come across since writing that reinforces my conviction that as a rule, we have much better chances with new goals if we take on only one of them at a time–but because of focus instead of fatigue: if we try to take on two or more new goals at once, our attention is divided between them. This means less concentration on habits for each goal, less thinking about each goal, less recognizing of opportunities, less clarity, less mindfulness, and other kinds of limitations on how well we can really devote ourselves to our new goal. Since accomplishing a major goal usually means changing habits, and since habits are stubborn by definition, we usually need all the focus we can get when we take a new goal on.

Physiological energy and fatigue
The other aspect of self-control fatigue I talked about was physical energy: mentally exerting ourselves toward a goal takes a surprising amount of our available energy (and available blood sugar), which is what the Times blog post was focusing on regarding the study in question. Replenishing this energy with a little sugar fix (some lemonade) seemed to help. This particular point still stands, I would say: it’s harder to push for new goals when we’re tired, although it’s definitely still possible, especially if we’re well-prepared.

Is willpower a reservoir or a skill set?
But does this mean we use up willpower itself and need to regenerate it, or does it just mean that we use up our physical energy and have less of that to use in exerting our willpower? Just to share my current belief–this is nothing I’ve seen tested yet in any study, although that would certainly be of interest to me–I don’t think willpower really does get used up at all. What is willpower, after all? It’s often characterized as being like a reservoir or an electrical charge, something that we have a limited amount of and can use up. In reality, though, effectively exerting willpower isn’t really a matter of struggling against temptation and winning, at least not most of the time: instead, it’s a matter of learning and using the right skills to redirect ourselves. In other words, it requires learning and applying what we learn rather than brute force.

For instance, if I’m tempted to stay up late into the night to watch a movie I just received even though I know I need to be up early the next morning, it might be possible for me to dredge up a stern enough “No!” to force myself, resentfully, off to bed. But it’s definitely possible for me to ask myself questions like “Will I enjoy this movie just about as much if I watch it later?” and “Would it also be enjoyable right now to climb in bed and get some rest?” and “Will I be happier tomorrow morning if I watch this movie or if I hold off?” and “What if I just go get ready for bed, then see if I’m still as keen on watching the movie?”

All of these questions are strategies for looking at my situation in a different–and more complete–way, questions that can help me line up my actions with my long-term happiness instead of with whatever short-term pleasure offers itself–especially since, if I’m patient, I can often get some of the pleasure anyway without such a big cost.

But after that, I deserve to make bad choices!
A special situation that can make willpower seem like it’s getting “used up” is what schema therapy (of which more in future posts) calls the “entitlement schema,” the idea some of us often get that we deserve some pleasurable thing regardless of its effect on our long-term happiness. Having to exert willpower in one area can activate this schema, making it harder to exert willpower later. For instance, a person might think “I didn’t get to have that chocolate cake earlier, so now I deserve to eat this ice cream.” These kinds of statements sound like they make sense, but they really don’t when we examine them, because past good choices don’t make current bad choices any less bad. When I find myself running into problems like these, I try to remember to use idea repair to remind myself what’s really important.

An entitlement schema can make it seem like we’re using up willpower when all we may really be doing is having trouble reconciling ourselves to the good choices we’ve already made. This isn’t fatigue, just an attitude issue.

In the end, our mental resources are finite: we can only handle so much at once. But our mental resources also seem to often be much greater than we expect or give ourselves credit for, and even when it might seem for a moment like we’ve run out of willpower, if we search a little, we may find great untapped reserves ready to carry us forward–lemonade or no lemonade.

Photo by apesara

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