willpower depletion: how willpower works, part 2

shopping exhaustion and willpower depletion

You forced yourself to attend the meeting, but then said something you regret.  The day just went downhill from there…you overate at lunch, spent too much on those shoes, skipped your workout, and finished the day with an extra glass of wine.  Hot mess or just a little willpower depletion?

So we started our discussion of willpower last week with a look at what it is and why willpower matters.  In this post, I’ll dig into how it works.  Simply understanding how willpower works can help you dodge some costly lapses in self-control.  In the next post, I’ll share a strategy for maximizing your willpower.

1. It works like a muscle

The best analogy to date compares willpower to a muscle.  It gets fatigued with overuse, but it can also be strengthened with a solid regiment.

Let’s exlore this more fully.  In 1998 a study was published by Roy Baumeister that showed that willpower gets depleted with use.  Subjects were exposed to the smell of chocolate chip cookies. Then some of the subjects were allowed to eat the cookies, while others were told to resist and instead eat radishes.  Thirty minutes later, both groups were given a challenging geometric puzzle.

Those who ate the cookies worked on the puzzle an average of 19 minutes.  Those who had to resist the cookies and instead eat radishes worked on it just 8 minutes before giving up.

2. Every temptation works the muscle

Todd Heatherton and Dartmouth and Kathleen Vohs of University of Minnesota showed that one mode of self-control can impact another.  In the case of their study, emotional control was challenged first, then physical control.

Dieters who were asked to stifle emotion from watching a sad film subsequently ate more ice cream than dieters allowed to respond naturally to the film.

Consider this in the workplace.  Resisting the temptation to speak your mind about an infuriating colleague may weaken your ability to resist overeating, overspending, or under-exercising.  Or vice versa!  It’s all connected.

3. It’s not the same as physical fatigue.

You might think dealing with difficult people is exhausting, but it turns out that willpower fatigue is different from physical fatigue.  Vohs tested subjects who were sleep deprived for 24 hours and found no measurable impact on their willpower.

4. But, it is physical…neural to be more precise.

MRIs show that people with greater willpower have more active prefrontal cortexes during moments of temptation than people with less willpower.  The prefrontal cortex manages executive function, such as decision-making.  The weaker willpower individuals show more activity in their ventral striatum, an area associated with desires and rewards.

Another theory is that willpower gets depleted in part due to a lack of glucose in the brain.  One study showed that participants who drank sugar-sweetened lemonade rebounded from depletion better than those who drank unsweetened lemonade.  (Note: The takeaway here is to regulate your blood glucose level, not to consume sugar.  Sugary foods can spike your glucose, resulting in an insulin surge that lead to a glucose roller coaster.)

So now we know what willpower is.

We know how it works, at least to some extent, and we know that improving willpower can positively impact every aspect of our lives.  In the next post, I’ll give you some proven methods for maximizing your willpower so you can more consistently do what matter most.

Please comment. Have you ever suffered willpower depletion…where it seemed that one lapse led to another?  What questions do you have about how willpower works?