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How the Myth of “Limited Willpower” Is Hurting Your Productivity

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The Way You Think About Willpower is Hurting You. The idea of ego-depletion arose from a 1990 study done by psychologist Roy Braumeister at Case Western Reserve University. This study, which we’ll call into question here, has been cited over three hundred times.

In the study, researchers placed test subjects in a room with a plate of homemade cookies, a plate of radishes and an unsolvable puzzle. Each group was allowed to snack from only one plate while instructed to solve the puzzle.

The hypothesis was that the radish group would spend less time struggling with the puzzle because they would expend willpower needed to work on the puzzle on resisting the cookies.

According to the study’s findings, their hypothesis was confirmed. The radish-eating group spent only eight minutes working on the puzzle, whereas the cooking-eating group spent nineteen minutes.

The study concluded that the radish-eaters had experienced ego depletion because of additional use of will power used up by resisting the homemade cookies. But is that what really happened?

In 2011, researcher Braumeister and John Tierney wrote the best-selling book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which explained the concept of ego depletion. The take home point was that sugar (glucose) restores willpower, self-control and stamina.

A Closer Look

But not everyone was so easily convinced. Upon replicating the study, other scientists determined that Baumeister’s conclusions about ego depletion were not accurate.

Willpower, they found, was not so limited as we thought.

Further research on the subject also did not come to Baumeister’s conclusion. Many scientists now doubt Baumeister’s theory of ego depletion.

Furthermore, the idea that sugar increases willpower has been discredited. Recent discoveries revealed that the brain uses the same number of calories regardless of the task at hand.

So, if sugar is the key to willpower, why are employers not providing their workers with endless sugary treats to increase productivity?

You Decide if Your Willpower is Limited

It is now accepted that the original theory of ego-depletion is untrue, and new explanations have arisen, giving a different explanation as to why we lack willpower in certain scenarios.

Carol Dweck, author of the popular book Mindset, recently found that people who believe that willpower can be depleted proved their belief to be right. Those who did not see willpower as having limits did not display ego depletion.

Dweck’s findings reinforced the concept that belief and behavior go hand in hand. Eating sugary foods makes us feel better for a while. This is a placebo effect that gives us the feeling that we can work a bit longer.

It should be noted that perpetuating the idea that willpower can be used up can do real harm. People who are taught this theory will quit when they think that their willpower is gone, rather than believing they simply need to believe their willpower is there for them whenever they need it.

“I have willpower and determination. I am very resilient, like rock.” – Carnie Wilson

How To Think About Your Own Willpower

This is an exciting time to be alive. If, in fact, we believe that we have the will to push through circumstance, we actually can. It turns out that the old aphorism “If there’s a will, there’s a way” has a kernel of truth.

The best way to think about willpower, then, is that it’s akin to emotion. In the same way that we don’t run out of joy, willpower fluctuates based on what is happening in our lives and how we feel about it.

In the same way that we can keep our emotions under control, willpower can be trained and managed using a variety of mental exercises. If mental energy operates like emotions, it can be managed with the use of self-control. When we need to stay on task, it is healthier to believe that a lack of motivation is merely temporary than to indulge ourselves in sugary foods.

Just as we take cues from our emotions, we should pay attention to what our willpower is telling us. When we experience a chronic lack of mental energy, we should be examining what we are forcing ourselves to spend time doing. If a job requires constant willpower to complete, maybe we are in the wrong job.

By the same token, when we enjoy our work and find it interesting and exciting, willpower does not need to be summonsed. We remain energetic without the artificial and temporary crutch of sugar or other stimulants. We do not put willpower to the test by fighting the temptation to divert our attention to entertainment.

Essentially, we give up on tasks that are not interesting to us. Spending time working on an unsolvable puzzle in a laboratory environment does not spur us on to greater accomplishments. Similarly, boring daily work requires willpower to keep us going.

A better plan is to listen to our struggling willpower telling us that the work at hand is not interesting or satisfying. Our emotions will line up with this message by telling us that there are no enjoyable, exciting feelings when doing the work.

“The achievements of willpower are almost beyond computation. Scarcely anything seems impossible to the man who can will strongly enough and long enough.” – Orison Swett Marden

Closing Thoughts

Calling on willpower until it is strained to the breaking point is a wake-up call that we should a close look at how we are spending our time.

Willpower is sending a harmonizing message to the miserable emotions we are feeling that something is just not right and we should either summons self-control to get the work done or decide it is time to find a different job.

What are some activities that require you to call on your willpower? Please leave a comment below as we would love to know!

Dan Fries is an entrepreneur and writer. He is the co-author of two highly-cited papers in the field of translational oncology research. Currently, Dan manages and operates a portfolio of internet companies, and has partnered with Wired Investors to help grow the company in the rapidly expanding micro-cap private equity space. He is fascinated by the potential of exponential technologies in both biotech and cryptocurrency.

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