Not so long ago, my after work routine looked like this: After a particularly grueling day, I’d sit on the couch and veg for hours, doing my solo version of “Netflix and chill,” which meant keeping company with a cold pint of ice cream. I knew the ice cream, and the sitting, were probably a bad idea, but I told myself this was my well-deserved “reward” for working so hard.
Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: it’s called “ego depletion.” The theory is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control. This theory would seem to perfectly explain my after-work indulgences.
But new studies suggest that we’ve been thinking about willpower all wrong, and that the theory of ego depletion isn’t true. Even worse, holding on to the idea that willpower is a limited resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.
The Ego-Depletion Myth
One of the most pervasive bits of folk psychology may be the belief that self-control is somehow “spent.” The idea received scientific support in the late 1990s, when the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University put it to the test, conducting an experiment that has since been cited over three thousand times by their academic peers.
In the study, the researchers asked two sets of test subjects to wait in a room where there were two plates of food. One plate held fresh-baked cookies, their scent wafting through the room. On the other plate lay dull red and white radishes. Each group was allowed to eat from only one plate but not the other. The thinking went that the group allowed to eat only radishes would have to expend serious willpower to resist eating the cookies.
Next, the researchers gave both groups a puzzle to work on. Unbeknownst to the study’s participants, the puzzle was designed to be impossible to finish. The researchers wanted to see which group would work on the task longer, and anticipated that the people in the radish group—who would have spent significant reserves of energy trying not to eat the cookies—would give up on the puzzle sooner. That’s exactly what happened.
The study participants who had denied themselves cookie yumminess lasted an average of just eight minutes, while the cookie eaters (and a control group who did only the puzzle-solving part of the experiment) lasted nineteen minutes. The study concluded that the radish eaters’ egos had clearly been depleted.
But had they?
In 2011, Baumeister teamed up with the New York Times journalist John Tierney to publish Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The book, with its mainstream appeal, soon became a best seller. Its authors cited several studies demonstrating the ego-depletion theory. In addition, one notable study showed a seemingly miraculous way to restore willpower: by consuming sugar. The study claimed that participants who had sipped sugar-sweetened lemonade demonstrated increased self-control and stamina on difficult tasks.
Fluke, Fake, or For Real?
Your Willpower Is Limited if You Think It Is
Looking at Willpower Differently
Baumeister says he and his colleagues are working on further studies to show ego depletion is real. It may well be that in carefully controlled lab conditions, willpower does appear to run out—even though the contradictory evidence makes this conclusion premature.
Perhaps the idea of ego depletion caught on because it satisfies a need to justify why we sometimes do things we know we shouldn’t, like slacking off at work when we should be finishing a project. But rather than looking for a hidden willpower gas tank in our heads that doesn’t exist, perhaps we should accept that we are fragile, distractible beings and cut ourselves some slack. Perhaps our flagging energies and wandering minds are trying to tell us something.
Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the principal investigator at the Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience, believes willpower is not a finite resource but instead acts 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. Viewing willpower through this lens has profound implications.
For one, if mental energy is more like an emotion than like fuel in a tank, it can be managed and utilized as such. A toddler might throw a temper tantrum when refused a toy, but adults learn to ride out bad feelings. Similarly, when we need to perform a difficult task, it’s more productive and healthful to believe a lack of motivation is temporary than it is to tell ourselves we’re spent and need a break and some ice cream.
But sometimes a lack of motivation isn’t temporary. Feelings are our bodies’ way of conveying information our conscious minds might miss. When a lack of mental energy is chronic, we should listen to our willpower just as we should listen to our emotions.
Most studies to date have looked at willpower as a force that helps people do things they don’t want to do, or that helps them resist temptations they’d rather give in to. But if we adjust the perspective and treat willpower as an emotion, it could instead be seen as providing insights about what we should and shouldn’t be spending our time on.
For example, whenever I feel myself easily distracted while working on an article, I know something isn’t right. If I’m checking Facebook or Twitter more than I should, I take that as a clear sign I’ve lost interest in the topic and should write about something else. If I were to force myself to power through despite my lack of interest, I’m sure I could write an article or two, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to make a lifetime career out of it.
However, when I find a topic that piques my curiosity or is in line with a cause I believe in, I get into a zone where time flies and words flow. I no longer need to force myself to write, I want to write. After a day of working on tasks requiring no willpower, I don’t feel drained, I feel energized. I don’t feel like binge-watching Netflix, I feel like telling the world about what I’m working on!
Fundamentally, we give up on tasks that don’t engage us. Doing unsolvable puzzles per the order of a social scientist in a lab coat isn’t fun, nor is it purposeful. Same goes for the mindless tasks too many people suffer through each day at work. We can power through unenjoyable tasks for a while, but we’ll never be our best if we ignore what our feelings are telling us. By listening to our lack of willpower as we would an emotion—as a helpful decision-making assistant working in concert with our logical capabilities—we can find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don’t want to do.
Just as we should seek joy indirectly by engaging in enjoyable pursuits, we can receive the benefits of willpower indirectly, by removing the need to expend it in the first place. Instead of focusing on willpower, we should look to the power of will.
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