Willpower Part II: How Your Willpower Is Depleted

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In the first post of this three-part series, we offered a general outline of the nature of willpower, noting that it is a real mental energy which regulates your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance control by keeping in check desires and behaviors at odds with your values and long-term goals.

We then compared the battle between your willpower and those unwanted desires to Al Bundy and Theodore Roosevelt sitting on your shoulders in the roles of the classic angel and devil.

We ended by saying that the winner of that battle depended on the strength of TR relative to Al at a given moment. And today we will explore what affects that balance and just how your willpower is weakened, a fascinating subject in and of itself, and one that is a necessary precursor for understanding how to then conserve, strengthen, and harness this vital force.

Willpower: A Finite Resource

In addition to the TR/Bundy image, it is also helpful to think of your willpower like a muscle. All of these qualities of your muscles also apply to your willpower:

  • Your muscles become weak and flabby through disuse and a lack of exercise.
  • In order to build the strength of your muscles in the long-term, you must exhaust them in the short-term.
  • While you can build the strength of your muscles over time, on any given day when you walk into the gym, your muscles have a finite amount of strength – there’s an absolute max weight you can lift before your muscles reach failure.
  • If you exhaust your muscles with one exercise, you’ll have less strength and endurance on the next exercise because your muscles will be fatigued. Your muscles need time to recover before they can be fresh again for your next workout.

We’ll come back to the first two points in our final post. Today we’re going to concentrate on those last two, exploring the fact that on any given day you have a finite supply of willpower, and that when you use part of that supply for one thing, you have less of it for others.

How Is Willpower Depleted?

Your supply of willpower is depleted in two ways.

First, by exercising self-control.

Every time you have a desire to do something that conflicts with accepted social norms or with your values and goals, and your willpower overrides that desire and keeps you on track, part of your willpower supply gets depleted. The stronger the desire and the harder it is to resist, the more of your willpower fuel is burned up in the struggle.

The need for self-control kicks in more times a day than you probably realize. In one study, participants were given beepers that randomly went off seven times a day and asked to record what they were experiencing when they heard the beep. Researchers found that at any given moment, 50% of the participants were feeling a desire right when the beeper went off – whether to eat, sleep, have sex, or surf the web – and another quarter of them had experienced a desire in the few minutes preceding the beep. All in all, the researchers found that on average people spend four hours a day resisting desires.

If that number seems high, think of all the desires you may have had in the last five minutes:

I want to eat that leftover pizza. But I’m not really hungry, I’m just bored. Bob just posted a ridiculous and false partisan article on Facebook. I really want to leave a comment telling him about all the errors in the piece, but that will just stir things up for no reason. I shouldn’t be on Facebook anyway, I need to get back to work. I really want to put my head down on the desk and take a nap….

The four hours you spend resisting desires each day doesn’t even include the second thing that saps your willpower: making decisions.

As with exercising your self-control, the harder the decision, the more your willpower supply gets drained. But even a back-to-back series of small and enjoyable decisions will eat up some of your willpower.

While simply shopping around and weighing different choices diminishes your willpower, it’s the moment when you lock in that choice and cast the die that gobbles it up the most. When you lock in one choice, you must reject other possibilities, and humans hate narrowing their options.

The diminishment of your willpower supply through the making of decisions and the exercise of self-control has been named “ego depletion” (for Freud’s term for the self) by foremost willpower expert, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.

Your Brain on Ego Depletion

So what’s going on in your brain when your willpower energy gets depleted?

When you’re suffering from ego depletion, your brain’s anterior cingulate cortex – the part of your brain that detects a mismatch between what you intended to do and what you’re actually doing – slows down. When your willpower tank is full, and you start getting off track, the ACC is quick to jump in with a, “Hey, hey, hey, what do you think you’re doing? Get your hand off that mouse and put your eyes back on the textbook. We have a final in 2 hours!” But when your willpower muscle is fatigued, your anterior cingulate cortex reacts with a delayed and muted alarm. The more of your willpower that’s been depleted, the slower the ACC responds, and the more likely you are to give into whatever the next temptation is you’re hit with, especially if the temptations come back-to-back. Then you might get no alarm at all, no voice that says, “You really don’t want to do that.”

It’s as if when your willpower gets low, TR falls asleep on watch, and Al has the run of the place. You can also imagine it like those video games where your health meter declines as you get injured – but if you can run around for awhile without being hit again, the health meter starts to climb back up and replenish itself. Crouch behind something and recover and you’re gold, but get hit again before that breather and you’re a dead man.

The Effects and High Cost of Ego Depletion

What happens to you when TR falls asleep and Al takes the wheel? Two things. Both of them bad.

Not Enough Slices of the Pie to Go Around

The biggest effect of ego depletion is what we mentioned in the beginning when we compared willpower to a muscle – when your willpower gets used up on one task, decision, or goal, you have less it for working on other tasks, decisions, and goals. Basically, the more ego depletion you experience, the less willpower you have to control your thoughts, emotions, and actions. There’s only so much willpower pie to go around.

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