Contrary to the “ego depletion” theory, willpower is not a depletable resource if you know how to use it wisely.
It’s common to hear people complain about feeling “burned out” or “spent” these days. However, these terms conjure a completely incorrect view of willpower–based on a theory psychologists call “ego depletion.”
Ego depletion theory says that willpower requires a reservoir of mental energy that can drain out. As I discussed at length in my book, Indistractable, and in previous articles, I disagree: willpower is not a depletable resource.
Plenty of new research has found that willpower is actually not “used up” like gas in a gas tank or charge in a battery.
This raises the question, “If willpower is not a finite resource, then what is it?”
More practically speaking, “How do we motivate ourselves to do things when we feel we lack willpower?”
Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the principal investigator at the Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience, offers a forward-thinking understanding of willpower that dispels the myths.
Inzlicht dissents with ego depletion theory. He believes that willpower is not a finite resource; instead, it’s more like an emotion.
Just as we don’t “run out” of joy or anger, willpower ebbs and flows based on what’s happening to us and how we feel.
It’s not the case that some people have a bigger reservoir of willpower than others; some people are simply better at managing their moods.
It’s a skill, not a wellspring.
It’s not about ego depletion. (Here’s the right way to think about willpower.)
Seeing willpower through a different lens has profound implications on the way we focus our attention. For one, if mental energy is more like an emotion than fuel in a tank, it can be managed and used as such.
For example, to determine the degree of control people feel regarding their cravings for cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, researchers administer a standard survey called the Cravings Beliefs Questionnaire.
The assessment is modified for the participant’s drug of choice and presents statements like, “Once the craving starts…I have no control over my behavior,” and the cravings “are stronger than my willpower.”
How people rate these statements tells researchers a great deal, not only about their current state but also how likely they are to remain addicted. Participants who indicate they feel more powerful as time passes increase their odds of quitting.
In contrast, studies of methamphetamine users and cigarette smokers found that those who believed they were powerless to resist were most likely to fall off of the wagon after quitting.
The logic isn’t surprising, but the extent of the effect is remarkable. A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that individuals who believed they were powerless to fight their cravings were much more likely to drink again.
An addict’s belief regarding their powerlessness was just as significant in determining whether they would relapse after treatment as their level of physical dependence.
Just let that sink in–mindset mattered more than physical dependence! What we say to ourselves is vitally important. Labeling yourself as having poor self-control actually leads to less self-control.
So, rather than telling ourselves we failed because we are somehow deficient, we should offer self-compassion by speaking to ourselves with kindness and unconditional positive regard when we experience setbacks.
Several studies have found people who are more self-compassionate experience a greater sense of well-being.
A 2015 review of 79 studies looking at the responses of over sixteen thousand volunteers found that people who have “a positive and caring attitude…toward her- or himself in the face of failures and individual shortcomings” tend to be happier.
Another study found that people’s tendency to self-blame, along with how much they ruminated on a problem, could almost completely mediate the most common factors associated with depression and anxiety.
An individual’s level of self-compassion had a greater effect on whether they would develop anxiety and depression than all the usual things that tend to screw up people’s lives, like traumatic life events, a family history of mental illness, low social status, loneliness, or lack of social support.
Harness the power of self-compassion
The good news is that we can change the way we talk to ourselves in order to harness the power of self-compassion.
This doesn’t mean we won’t mess up–we all do. Everyone struggles with distractions from time to time. The important thing is to take responsibility for our actions without heaping on the toxic guilt that makes us feel even worse and can, ironically, lead us to seek even more distraction in order to escape the pain of shame.
Self-compassion makes people more resilient to let-downs by breaking the vicious cycle of stress that often accompanies setbacks.
Give yourself more credit.
If you find yourself thinking you’re deficient in willpower or focus, remember that it doesn’t really work that way.
A healthier way to handle a lack of motivation is to tell yourself, “This is what it’s like to get better at something,” and “You’re on your way.”
We can use self-compassion to rebut the voice in our heads that tells us we’re inadequate. After all, we don’t have to believe everything we think.
We can cope with uncomfortable internal triggers by reflecting on, rather than reacting, to our discomfort.
If we believe we are short on willpower and self-control, then we will be. If we decide we’re powerless to resist temptation, it becomes true. If we tell ourselves we are deficient by nature, we will believe every word.
Thankfully, you can choose not to believe this false narrative. You’re only powerless if you think you are.
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