Willpower is Limited!

Here's something you don't hear every day. Willpower is limited. You read that right, it runs out! The thing we rely on to get stuff done is actually extremely unreliable! What? Luckily, this doesn't mean that you're going to be stuck procrastinating for the rest of your life. There are workarounds, which don't include powering through. True, that would work too, but only for a little while, after which you just end up less and less motivated until you reach, you guessed it, the burnout. We've all been there, haven't we? Take it slow and you'll go far.

Think of it like this:

Willpower is a muscle

It tires out after using it for a while. Then, it must replenish itself. Pushing strong is admirable, but it's the equivalent of a sprint. You can't sprint for the rest of your life, your body will literally give out. For the mind that is called a "burnout", and it can last weeks! I've been there many, many times, powering through, finishing task, after task, after task, staying up late and waking up early, and so on. Guess what, that lasted for a week tops, the tiredness I felt afterward lasted weeks. Ironically, it's less productive to keep pushing than to rest.

Roy Baumeister, et al. at Case Western Reserve University, conducted a research, which tested the willpower of two groups of subjects. They were given cookies and radishes, each group could only eat from one plate, of course, one group could eat the cookies while the other only the radishes. Next, they were given a puzzle to solve. The puzzle was made to be impossible to finish, with the aim being to see how long each group could last. The result was that the cookie indulging group lasted 19 minutes, while the group that had to refrain from the cookies lasted just half of that.

Because now you know it's a muscle, you can come up with ways to make strain it less. The group that had to eat radishes used their willpower muscle because they still had that plate of delicious cookies to temp them. But what if the researchers took that away? What if you take away your distractions and temptations? By doing this you can focus your will on doing the tasks you need to instead of resisting temptation. Try taking away your distractions when you need to get something done next time, put your phone on silent in a drawer.

Willpower is energy

There are two factors that affect the research's outcome. The first one we just talked about, the willpower muscle was more tired in one group than the other. The second is that one of the groups ate cookies.

Here's the deal, when people delete their willpower they show decreased activity in the cognition area of the brain, as well as, lower blood-glucose levels. Glucose serves the function of providing quick energy to the body, it's also why children get hyperactive after trick-or-treating all night.

This brings us to the first workaround. Diet. It's no coincidence that people always talk about switching up their diet and feeling more healthy and energetic. What you eat makes a massive impact on how your brain functions. Sugars are a quick fix solution to willpower loss, but not sustainable in the long run, like the sprint we talked about. Instead, a well-rounded and balanced diet can make your body able to provide energy to the brain whenever need, and as much as needed. In this way, you don't have bursts of energy followed by sleepy crashes.

Willpower is contagious

Ever heard of the saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with? It cannot be more true. In fact, we literally have neurons in the brain that only serve the purpose of making this saying true, the mirror neurons. When you like someone, or when someone likes you, something incredible happens. Take note next time you're with someone, look at your body, and how it's positioned, is it the same as theirs? That is due to those tiny mirror neurons scattered in your brain. They make you mirror the actions of those around you.

You can't help this phenomenon, it's out of your control. When you start spending time with people who have the ability to jump from one task to another without batting an eye and resist their impulses as if they never even had them you start to improve your self-control too. Before you know it, you'll become just like them! And the best part? It starts from day one! Beware though, this works both ways, even if the people around are lazy, impulsive people, those mirror neurons will still fire up.

Willpower is a skill, not a talent

Talent is something you are essentially born with, a skill is acquired. One could make the argument that everyone is born with the same amount of willpower or at least very similar amounts. If you look around you, people who seem to be in full control of themselves usually have parents that are like that, or their close friends are like that. For the majority of people, they just learned to be that way. If you know my story, you know I certainly learned to make my willpower stronger. How one goes about doing this is the same way one would train any other skill or muscle, through repetition and a good strategy.

You wouldn't do pushups for a whole day. In fact, everyone knows to have rest days between workouts. The exact same principle applies to willpower. The weekend is coming soon and that is a perfect opportunity to get a rest day. It's ok to give it 50% on a Saturday, have a lazy day once in a while, reward yourself for the hard work you've been doing the rest of the week. This is essential. Being able to have control of yourself is a marathon,

not a sprint! Take it easy, take it slow, and you'll go far.

Other tidbits

There are many factors which affect willpower, I didn't include them all because this would make this article probably 3 - 4 times longer than it already is but here's a few more major ones

  • Sleep and stress kill your willpower.

  • Feeling guilty about losing self-control keeps it far away. I talk about this a lot in my articles, I call it forgiveness. Forgive yourself and move on.

  • Your future self = your present self. Don't leave tasks for tomorrow thinking that tomorrow-you will do twice the same work. By the time you get to tomorrow, tomorrow-you will just be present-you again.

. . .

If you would like to know more about this topic, take a look at Kelly McGonigal's "The Willpower Instinct". I've had the pleasure of studying in the same university she works at, and this book changed the way I complete my tasks fundamentally. I'm curious to know how many people thought about willpower and self-control in this way. Did you know it was limited? What will you do differently this week? Let me know in the comments!


Hi, I'm Matthew, my mission is to spread knowledge about motivation, productivity, and enabling people to achieve the best that they can be! I have a vast background in psychology and a passion for self-improvement. I literally can't remember a time when I didn't have a psychology book in my hands. On top of that, I've traveled around the world from a very young age, and seen many different courses of life, forming friendships with highly successful people, as well as people who are willing to do anything to make ends meet. My own life took me down a roller coaster of highs and lows, and I'm forever grateful that I've been able to overcome everything it threw at me. Now I want to take the opportunity to give back, and help others learn tools and methods for becoming who they were born to be!


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