Willpower is a limited resource. When you expend it, by exerting your self-control, you are left weaker. Eventually it replenishes itself, with rest, time for recovery, and nourishment (glucose.) Everyone has a fixed quantity of willpower that they can invest in regulating themselves to work towards the goals that are most meaningful to them. But because the quantity is relatively fixed, people choose to allocate the willpower they have to the things that are most important to them.
This forces people to prioritize. The guy who uses his willpower on his career, possibly working nights and weekends to make sure his professional goals are met, then finds his willpower depleted and is not as disciplined about spending time with his family, or getting to the gym. The woman who exerts her self-control on a new diet might find herself less able to control her emotions when her husband forgets to take out the trash.
This willpower depletion is also known as “decision fatigue.” When someone is forced to use their self-control by making tough decisions, their decision-making ability becomes fatigued. Once fatigued, they will avoid making additional decisions.
In a biography of President Obama by Michael Lewis, the President talks about managing his own decision fatigue:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make . . .You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” (Lewis, p. 4).
With Obama’s job, he can’t afford to waste his limited willpower on trivial decisions.
But you don’t have to be the president of a large country to feel the limitations of your finite willpower. We all struggle from not having the time and energy to do everything that we know we should (exercise, meditate, stretch, breathe, journal, spend quality time with loved ones, pursue our passions, manage our finances, clean the house, etc. etc. etc.)
There is a trend in the self-help genre towards a greater understanding of the limitations of energy and willpower. Books like Willpower (Baumeister & Tierney), Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less (Lesser), The Power of Full Engagement (Loehr & Schwartz), Be Excellent at Anything (Schwartz), or The Laws of Subtraction (May) all talk about this element of accomplishing more by trying to do less. You can’t be successful if you don’t give yourself time to recover and replenish your energy.
One recent best seller, the 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, features the “Slow Carb” diet (a diet of primarily meats/proteins, beans and vegetables at EVERY meal.) The diet allows for you to take one day a week as a binge day and eat whatever you want. The primary purpose of the binge day is to acknowledge that people won’t stick to the diet if they don’t have a way to indulge when their willpower gets fatigued from sticking to it the rest of the week.
The good news is, if you know how willpower works you can manage your energy better. You can plan to make important decisions when your energy is high, and avoid them when your energy is low. You can stop wasting energy on trivial decisions (as an experiment, try flipping a coin to make non-important decisions for a week and see how it feels.) You can seek (as Obama does) certain routines that eliminate unnecessary decisions. You can allow yourself small indulgences to replenish your willpower. And you can avoid temptations when you know your willpower might be weaker.
Perhaps most importantly, you can allocate your willpower, deciding which of your goals and values deserve most of your energy. Think of willpower as a precious commodity, and save it for when you need it most.
References and recommended reading:
Baumeiser, R. F. & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.
Ferriss, T. (2010). The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. Harmony.
Lewis, Michael. (Oct 2012). Obama’s Way. Vanity Fair.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2004). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
by Jeremy McCarthy
E-book available: The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.