Let's say you've volunteered to participate in a series of psychological experiments. You show up at a lab on a university campus. First, in Stage 1, the researchers give you a frustrating task like the Stroop test (left) where you must override your tendency to read words and focus solely on calling out colors. You don't realize it, but this task is meant to wear out (deplete) your willpower. In Stage 2, you must do another task as best you can. This second task might be:
How motivated would you be to persist at one of the above tasks?
If you are like me, the answer would be "When's lunch?" The tasks seem meaningless. Who cares? Yet these are the kinds of tasks that researchers often give students in willpower experiments. Researchers compare the persistence of the experimental group, whose willpower was presumably depleted in stage 1, with the persistence of the control group, whose willpower was not depleted. Usually the control group does better, suggesting that willpower is a limited resource. (Flawed as these experiments might be, at least they help us think about willpower issues.)
I bring this up because the idea that willpower is a limited resource is now being hotly debated in the media, but unless you are a nerd like me, you might have missed it. Going head to head are two of my favorite researchers, Roy Baumeister and Carol Dweck. The debate, summarized here, is over this question: Is willpower like a muscle that can only do so many biceps curls before it wears out (Baumeister group) or is it a powerful mental idea that can give you almost unlimited energy (Dweck group)?
Both, in my opinion. To me, the nature of willpower is neither "it gets depleted" nor "it depends on how you think about it"--rather, these two positions seem to be a matter of degree, at different points on the same continuum. On the one hand, willpower can get worn down; on the other hand, dedicated people can persist against all--well, at least most--odds, at least up to the point of sheer exhaustion.
The key question is: What really strengthens willpower?
Here's my answer: To activate your willpower, you must be able to remind yourself WHY it's important for you to do something. Meaningless tasks do not activate willpower. When you have a purpose, you have the beginnings of willpower because you are committed to your goal.
Here are some experiments that back me up:
My conclusion: People can compensate for depleted willpower, at least to some extent, if they are motivated by something meaningful to them. So, when you want to achieve a goal, change your lifestyle, or exert self-control in any way, ask yourself: Why? Why do I want to do this? Why is it important to me?
(c) Meg Selig. All rights reserved.
I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here, and you'll receive periodic messages about habit change, motivation, willpower, books, and the good life. And/or, follow me on Twitter.
Muraven, M. & Slessareva, E. "Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2003; 29; pp. 894 ff.
"Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees," http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2436
See also, "The Power of Why," by Harvey Mackay, http://harveymackay.net/column/the-power-of-why/.
"Willpower: It's In Your Head," by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/opinion/sunday/willpower-its-in-your-head.html?scp=1&sq=carol%20dweck&st=cse