August 30, 2016 by Angus
Willpower: Are you running on empty?

We hear a lot of talk about willpower. It’s one of those subjects everybody wants to know more about. People crave insight into willpower and, especially, how to get more of it.

Hell, I wish I had more willpower. Don’t you?

But what if this wish for more willpower was misplaced? What if willpower isn’t something you can “get more of” immediately?

Imagine what life would be like if, in fact, willpower was a finite resource at this moment.

Let’s look into this a little.


Our seemingly never-ending battle for more willpower

The truth of the matter is, it takes a lot of effort to go against what our natural impulses and emotions tell us. Take walking into a crowded room when we feel and struggle with social anxiety. The idea of socializing with new people makes us feel extremely anxious. Our biology tries to get us to “turn and run from the tiger”. It takes an enormous amount of willpower to overcome that impulse.

Similarly, it takes willpower to stick to a regime of eating better. When we see our favorite fatty food or sugar junk out lying in front of us, our ancient biology drives us to eat it. Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestral bodies couldn’t pass up the opportunity to gobble-down those foods, high in kilojoules to help us survive in harsh environments. Today, however, we don’t need those extra kilojoules but the temptations are everywhere to go overboard. We battle to apply our willpower, day in and day out.

If only we had more willpower, these types of challenges would be easy to overcome. At least, that’s how it appears to us.

Let’s take a look at what the research into willpower reveals for this type of thinking.

What evidence-based psychological research tells us about your willpower

A number of years ago, a very interesting experiment was conducted. Let’s call it “the Radish experiment”. You’ll see why, in just a minute.

In this study, a group of university students were brought together. None of the students had eaten for most of the day.

The students were divided up into two groups. One group was put in a room with plates of radishes. There were also plates of chocolate chip cookies.

The other group was put in a separate room. They also had the same number of plates of radishes and chocolate chip cookies.

Feeling the ancient urge to run to the pantry and grab a biscuit? I know I am. But hold on there. Let’s stay focused here on our willpower experiment.

When temptation engages our willpower

OK now, the first group of students was told that they could only eat the chocolate chip cookies. They had to leave the radishes alone. Doesn’t sound too tough, really. It would seem that not a lot of willpower would be required to resist those radishes when delicious chocolate chip cookies were your other choice!

On the other hand, the second group was told they had to leave those sweet temptations alone. They were only allowed to eat the radishes. Sounds cruel, doesn’t it! But there you have it. Those were the parameters for this experiment in willpower. It was hypothesized that this group, being denied the sweet temptations, would be required to exercise more willpower to stay within the rules.

Now this wasn’t the end of the experiment. The researchers had one more surprise up their sleeve. Once the groups had been through the first phase of the experiment, they were then put in a different room. There they had to engage in another task. Interestingly, however, this new task had been designed to have no practical solution.

With this second phase of “the radish experiment” was designed to record how long the participants in each group would persevere in the task.

Now, “what were the results”, you ask.

What “the radish experiment” tells us out willpower

The radish experiment researchers found the following.

The people who had been “forced” to eat chocolate chip cookies persevered in the “no solution” task for an average of 20 minutes. Note, these are the people who hadn’t expended any willpower when eating the sweet treats.

The other group who’d been “forced” to eat the radishes alone, however, showed a very different result. They persevered on the “no solution” task for an average of 8 minutes only. Remember, it was surmised that, because they had to resist eating the sweet treats, they had less willpower to stick to the rules imposed.

“What does this all mean”, you ask.

It’s fair to suspect that the first group held out for longer because they were loaded up on sugar and caffeine from the sweet treat junk out. They would have been more hyped up. That would explain their ability to go for 20 minutes, unlike the 8 minutes for the other group. But in fact, that isn’t the reason they persevered longer.

To make sure the sugar hit wasn’t a cause, the experimenters had conducted a control group experiment. That group wasn’t offered any food at all. Even with a lack of energy, that group also managed to persevere for an average of 20 minutes.

Something else was going on here.

Indeed, there was. It would appear from the radish experiment that willpower is, in fact, a finite resource. Many subsequent experiments concur with this conclusion.

Running your willpower tank dry

Here’s the thing. On any particular day, if you use up too much of your willpower in one aspect of your life, you may find you have very little willpower left for other aspects of your life.

Let’s spell that out more clearly. Think like you have a willpower tank. If you “drive” your willpower engine too hard you’ll quickly empty the tank.

It’s true, other factors may also influence the size of your willpower tank on any particular day. One notable example goes something like this. If you have a very poor night with broken sleep, you’ll probably wake with a lower level of willpower for that day.

Similarly, if you have an emotional upset, like a relationship crisis, the size of your willpower tank can be quickly depleted. Examples like this can easily impact your life for several days, weeks or even months.

Refueling on willpower

Now, just as you can rapidly deplete your willpower tank, it can also be topped up. That’s to say, you can increase the size of your willpower tank.

“Now that’s interesting”, I hear you say.

Being in a more relaxed and comfortable emotional state is likely to increase the size of your willpower tank, too. You might help to achieve this by practicing progressive muscular relaxation, for example.

So there you have it. Interesting, isn’t it?

Let me know your thoughts by sharing your experiences here

Here’s the take away message. Willpower is a finite resource. Make sure you get a good exchange rate for it. In the future, we’ll talk more about how you can do exactly that and how you can actually increase the size of your tank long term. In the meantime, keep up to date with more insights to help you go further and live your best life.

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