Digging Deeper and Finding Willpower

Self-restraint, resolve, drive, determination, discipline, and willpower all refer to the same thing: mastery over the self. This unique trait seems to raise humans to another level of existence. This is the ability to master instinct, rationalize long term gains over short term pleasures, and overcome our most formidable foe, ourselves. Unfortunately, this power is not limitless. Like a muscle, it can be exhausted, and every act of stubborn resolve depletes our reserves of will. Fortunately, like a muscle, it can be strengthened through exercise and mental toughness.

An experiment by Roy F. Baumeister in 1998 first observed the limits of our will power. In the experiment, subjects were taken into a room filled with delicious and fragrant cookies. The experiment group was then forced to eat radishes, a disappointing prospect compared to those who were allowed the tasty treats. The two groups then had to solve complex puzzles. The result: those who ate radishes gave up more quickly than those allowed to indulge their sweet tooth (as well as the control group which went straight to the puzzles). This proved that acts of self-control lead to what Baumeister termed “ego depletion”.

Despite this, we are able to strengthen our willpower through practice and even push beyond our limits by sheer power of mind. A 2010 study by Stanford University found that merely believing willpower is unlimited reduces signs of ego-depletion, compared to those who believe that willpower is limited. Another study, this one by the University of Albany, found that our source of motivation also impacts ego depletion. People who felt compelled (say by a desire to please others) to exert self-control were more easily depleted than those who were driven by internal goals and desires.

So get back up when you fall. Have the strength to endure, and the resolve to push forward. If the goal is truly important, then you can push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of. Don’t waste your time with trifling goals that don’t really matter to you. They will only drag you down. Focus your gaze on the point where you want to head, and go there no matter what.

Additional Resources

Zen Habits, Three Effective Ways to Enhance Your Willpower: http://zenhabits.net/three-effective-ways-to-enhance-your-willpower/

The New York Times, How to Boost Your Will Power: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/how-to-boost-your-willpower/

The American Psychological Association: What you Need to Know about Willpower: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx

Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? http://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Baumeister%20et%20al.%20%281998%29.pdf

Psychological Science, Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? http://www.stanford.edu/~gwalton/home/Publications_files/Job,%20Dweck,%20%26%20Walton,%202010.pdf

Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle? http://psyserv06.psy.sbg.ac.at:5916/fetch/PDF/10978569.pdf

Journal of Educational Psychology, The Roles of IQ and Self-Control in Predicting Standardized Achievement Test Scores and Report Card Grades: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/What%20no%20child%20left%20behind%20leaves%20behind_final.pdf

Psychology Today, How do High Achievers Really Think? http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/youre-hired/201110/how-do-high-achievers-really-think

University of Albany, Ego Depletion: www.albany.edu/~muraven/publications/promotion files/chapters/Muraven in press Ego-Depletion Chapter.pdf


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