Your willpower – some fascinating psychological light is thrown on a universal topic. You may be able to use some of insights directly in your own personal life and career. Psychological research consistently shows that our brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in other areas. On the other hand, practice increases willpower capacity.
This article is based on information in a New York Times article, “Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind,” by .
What depletes willpower
The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when you control your thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when you modify your behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologists have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.
Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.
What limits willpower?
Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control.
You should spend your limited willpower budget wisely
In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy.
On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let slide minor jobs like housecleaning to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.
Focus on success
Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use.
In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.
No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain.
Any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower
Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.