The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Why Leaders Have More Willpower, and More Willpower Failures

Leaders are natural willpower athletes

In my Science of Willpower course, we talk about willpower as a strength that can be trained. I encourage people to think of themselves as willpower athletes. Try doing something harder than you're used to; dig in to your determination and motivation; trust that by training, the difficult will become easier. You'll develop greater willpower stamina and strength by not giving up at the very first hint of fatigue.

Psychologists have identified one group of people who seem to be natural willpower athletes: leaders. Being in a position of power or high responsibility seems to motivate people to use whatever willpower they have left. Even when overwhelmed and exhausted, they will dredge up the final reserves to get things done.

And while research shows that most of us run out of willpower the more we use it, leaders show an opposite response to effort. Willpower-depleted leaders work even harder than those who haven't been dealing with constant self-control demands. The feeling of willpower fatigue shifts them into the mindset of a tired triathlete: just keep going, don't ask questions, you can do it. So they make the deadline, stay awake despite jet lag, or keep their cool in an emergency.

There is a downside to pushing through, however. Studies show that leaders will exert their willpower until they crash and burn. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals who are more likely to "conserve" our energy, they spend every last bit of their willpower reserve. This puts them at greater risk for real willpower exhaustion.

Like the triathlete who collapses when they pass the finish line, people in power have a tendency to fail hard when they fail, from scandalous sexcapades to addiction and corruption. Even if they aren't candidates for a National Enquirer exposé, people with high-status career and heavy responsibilities often have one area of their lives-from food to finances-that feels completely, utterly out of control.

While many of us need to push ourselves a little more, some of us need to remember that other important ingredient of athletic training: rest and recovery. It's not just world leaders who face this risk: anyone with a lot of responsibilities (hello, parents) may find themselves burned out. If you are already pushing the limits of what seems humanly possible, your challenge may be to stop before you collapse.

On the other hand, if you wake up drained of willpower and are always too exhausted to tackle an important challenge, consider whether you might be overtraining. It is possible to push yourself too hard; try delegating a task or letting go of perfectionism on a low-priority project.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for boosting your willpower, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Study referenced:

DeWall C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Mead, N. L., & Vohs, K. D. (2011). How leaders self-regulate their task performance: Evidence that power promotes diligence, depletion, and disdain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 47-65.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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