Devils-Food-Birthday-CakeI’ve stumbled across several interesting articles on the science of willpower recently. This is a good example of the genre (though I’d take issue with the “plant based diet” item, and I confess I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the video): The Science of Willpower.

Just to summarize some of the ideas that stuck with me:

  1. Willpower is a limited resource.
  2. Your willpower is generally strongest earlier in the day.
  3. You also have better willpower when you are well rested (preferably eight hours of sleep), not hungry, and not under stress. (And good luck with all that!)
  4. Long term exercise of willpower can increase your reserves.

This was the first time I’d encountered the concept of Ego Depletion: this notion of willpower being expendable. I’m not sure it’s quite so clear cut as all that, as if you have a willpower bank with exactly x willpower minutes to withdraw per day, but looking at my own patterns, I can totally buy into the idea that willpower can be sapped by too many demands.

Which may well be one reason New Year’s resolutions fail: you suddenly put all sorts of new demands on your willpower at once, and this right after you’ve almost certainly spent the holidays encouraging your willpower to atrophy into flabby mush. It’s a fine recipe for failure.

This is all fascinating to me. I’m learning when it doesn’t make sense to push too hard, and when I should avoid tempting situations. If I have a project that’s going to require a lot of focus and attention, it’s best to do it first thing or a bit after lunch, for example, instead of fifteen minutes before lunch or at the end of the day. And speaking of lunch, it’s always best to pack something healthy in the morning or when I’m on an even keel just before bed. When I’m hungry or when I’m engulfed in a stressful task, I have all the willpower of a beagle in a steak forest. Or another bad metaphor of your choosing.

I don’t feel quite so disgusted with myself if I get home after a tough day at work and it’s really, really hard to make myself finish a reading assignment or get some writing in, even though I managed it the night before. I’m aware that it’s likely because I used up a lot of willpower just getting through the day. It doesn’t mean I’m permanently broken or useless.

Of course, I do want to improve the situation. For strengthening purposes, I’ve been trying to exercise my willpower in small and reasonable ways. One of the simplest ways is just dealing with quick tasks right away instead of putting them off for some mythical future date: bringing in the dog food as soon as I get home from the store, vacuuming when I notice the floor needs it instead of filing it away for, you know, next month sometime. Common sense, perhaps, but not something I’ve traditionally been good about. And I’ve been pretty good about sticking with healthier food options since the start of the new year, except for a certain ice cream fiasco we will choose to forget.

This exercising willpower for the sake of increase may seem a little too ethereal to be believable, but I believe, mostly because I’ve seen it in my own life. For example, back when I was first learning fingerstyle guitar, teaching myself classical pieces a few notes at a time and practicing regularly, that discipline spilled into other areas of my life. I remember finding it easier to make myself start other unpleasant tasks, stick with exercise, etc.

I know I have a spine here somewhere. Hoping to find it again.


2 thoughts on “Willpower!

  1. Reminds me of exercises in Roberto Assaglioli’s PSYCHOSYNTHESIS. Interesting variation of psychotherapy. He was maybe less anti-religious than most theorists though pretty new-age-y.


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