Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

As I sit here shoving handful after handful of trail mix into my mouth, I’m reading an article by Nir Eyal in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Have We Been Thinking About Willpower the Wrong Way for 30 Years?”

Apparently the old school of thought regarding willpower, known as ego depletion, is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once we run out of that energy, we’re more likely to lose self-control.

Ego depletion would explain your desire, after a tough day at work, to go home and zone out in front of the TV and binge eat bon bons.

The original research finding support for the theory of ego depletion was conducted in the late 1990s by the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University.

However, recent research has had difficulty replicating the results.

New research by Carol Dweck at Stanford concluded that signs of ego depletion were observed only in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. Those participants who did not see willpower as finite did not show signs of ego depletion.

It appears ego depletion may be just another example of the way belief drives behavior. Thinking we’re spent makes us feel worse, while rewarding ourselves with an indulgence makes us feel better.

If Dweck’s conclusions are correct, then perpetuating the idea of willpower as a finite resource is doing real harm. Spreading the ego-depletion hypothesis is making people less likely to actually accomplish their goals because it gives them a reason to quit when they could otherwise persist.

It’s human nature give up on tasks that don’t engage us. We can power through tasks that we don’t enjoy for a while, but we’ll never be our best if we ignore what our feelings are telling us. By listening to our lack of willpower as we would an emotion — as a helpful decision-making assistant working in concert with our logical capabilities — we can find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don’t want to do.

Just as we should seek joy by engaging in enjoyable pursuits, we can receive the benefits of willpower indirectly, by removing the need to expend it in the first place.

While this may sound good in theory, it seems like all of us to do things we don’t necessarily enjoy, and willpower comes in handy in such situations. On the other hand, just engaging in things we enjoy doesn’t seem to be a good idea either. What if we enjoy smoking a cigarette or just laying in bed all day?

So I think I like the old theory of ego depletion; it’s easier to understand, it wouldn’t invalidate all the books written by the motivational gurus, and I’ve personally experienced it several times (he said while putting another handful of trail mix into his mouth).

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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