The Myth Of Limited Willpower (And How It Kills Your Productivity)

Posted on - in Culture & Communication
limited willpower

This is a guest post from writer Dan Fries. To submit your own guest post, check out our Write For Us page.

One of the more popular psychological theories of the past 20 years is the idea that willpower is a limited resource.

This theory is known as ego depletion, and it essentially means that when you need to put your mental energy towards one task, you’ll then have less mental energy left for tasks later in the day. Even tasks as simple as making small decisions can sap some of that mental energy.

Let’s say you’re on a diet and someone brings pizza to work. According to the theory of ego depletion, resisting the temptation to eat any pizza will drain you mentally, making it harder for you to go to the gym later.

Even some of the most successful people in the world believe in ego depletion. For example, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama would wear the same clothes every day just so they could reduce the number of decisions they needed to make and lighten their mental load.

There’s just one problem with this theory – it could be totally wrong.

The Origins of Ego Depletion

While there have been numerous studies done on ego depletion, Roy Baumeister set up perhaps the most highly cited study in 1998.

In the study, researchers instructed participants not to eat for at least three hours before coming to the lab. The researchers baked chocolate chip cookies in the lab before participants arrived, and they had those cookies out on a table along with radishes.

Researchers saw participants one at a time, and they would instruct half the participants to eat cookies and the other half to eat radishes. They then gave participants an impossible puzzle to attempt to solve, and told participants to ring a bell if they gave up.

The participants who had eaten radishes attempted the puzzle, on average, for only half as long as the people who had eaten cookies.

Researches came to the conclusion that the participants who had eaten radishes depleted some of their mental energy in doing so, which meant that they didn’t have as much willpower to put towards the puzzle.

Further Research Has Been Inconclusive

Since that study came out, there have been many other studies supporting its findings that people have limited willpower.

However, there have also been studies that found no evidence of ego depletion. Many of these studies haven’t been published, which means the current scientific literature may not have all the evidence when it comes to ego depletion.

There were studies published in both 2014 and 2016 that state the evidence regarding ego depletion is inconclusive. At a psychology conference in 2016, there was a session focusing on the inaccuracies of ego depletion.

None of this means that there isn’t any truth to ego depletion. It just means the popular idea likely isn’t completely accurate.

The Problem with Believing in Ego Depletion

Unfortunately, belief in the unproven idea of ego depletion can be a hindrance to getting-thing-done.

The mind is powerful and has a huge effect on performance. Believing that you have a limited amount of mental energy is a self-defeating attitude which can make you less productive.

Ego depletion may just be an idea at this point in time, but it’s a popular idea that has been the center of quite a few “psychological tips” and “life hack” articles. Perform a quick search and you’ll find plenty of resources recommending that you manage your mental energy so you don’t run out.

People read about this, they take it to heart, and then it starts to subconsciously affect them. If they feel a bit drained after completing a task, confirmation bias leads them to see it as evidence of ego depletion.

One Stanford study is the perfect example of this concept in action. It found evidence of ego depletion – but only among people who believed in ego depletion before the study.

The participants who didn’t believe that willpower was limited performed fine and didn’t show the typical signs of ego depletion.

The participants who believed they had limited willpower showed signs of ego depletion and saw their performance suffer. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Belief in ego depletion gives people a reason to quit on tasks and avoid pushing themselves.

People end up rewarding themselves after work by taking it easy and doing nothing when they could be working out, reading or finding other ways to better themselves. And according to many in the self-help industry, they’re doing the right thing.

What Is Willpower?

The ego depletion theory has its merits. It is certainly possible for people to become mentally drained.

But the evidence on it has been inconclusive to this point.

The mind certainly doesn’t have an energy meter like in a video game or a fuel tank measuring how much juice it has left for the day.

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One theory is that willpower is similar to an emotion, and it increases and decreases based on how people are feeling and their current circumstances.

This makes sense, as most have found that their mental energy levels fluctuate throughout the day.

Now, if that’s true and mental energy is a type of emotion, that would mean you can train and manage it using a variety of mental exercises. This turns the entire idea of willpower and ego depletion on its head.

Instead of being able to do nothing about your mental energy throughout the day, short of minimizing the decisions you make, you can improve it.

Final Thoughts

The truth about willpower may lie somewhere in the middle of all the current theories.

At this point, there’s not enough evidence to prove anything, and it’s definitely not worth basing your life decisions on an unproven theory.

So, feel free to pick out your clothes in the morning without worrying that you won’t be able to resist the temptation to snack later. If you find that you have trouble concentrating at certain times, start performing the occasional mental exercise to improve your focus.

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Daniel Fries is an entrepreneur and writer. He is the co-author of three highly-cited papers in the field of translational oncology research. Dan’s diverse background includes positions as a research associate at OSI Pharmaceuticals, an associate scientist at Medtronic Cardiovascular, and research scientist at both the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology and the Meyerson Lab at Dana Farber of Harvard Medical School.

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