How To Stop Squandering Your Willpower (it’s a limited resource!)

We all want to have more willpower.

However, if you are like most people, you probably  experience a vicious cycle of giving in, beating yourself up for it, and then giving in again fairly often.

In many cases, though, the problem  lies not in the weakness of our characters, but in our lack of understanding what willpower is and how it works, which makes our efforts to control our impulses futile despite our best intentions.

Today, I want to talk about a very important scientific discovery, one that might change the way you think about willpower forever.

How do we know that willpower is a limited resource?

Roy Baumeister, a well-known psychologist, has been asking people to exert their willpower in controlled environment for the last 15 years. He did experiments involving a variety of self-control challenges: ignoring distractions, turning down delicious treats, controlling one’s emotions, etc. However, no matter which particular task people did, their self-control decreased over time.

Moreover, it turned out that exerting willpower in a specific way didn’t just impair people’s  ability to successfully perform the same task again: it also decreased their overall self-control. Participants who were told to resist biscuits were more likely to procrastinate, those who tried to control their emotions were more likely to buy things they didn’t need, and so on. It seemed that their  willpower was getting more and more depleted with each act of self-control.

These observations led to an interesting hypothesis: what if willpower is like a muscle that gets tired when you use it? Various studies have confirmed this idea by now: every act that requires self-control depletes our willpower resources and leaves us with less willpower for dealing with the next challenge. It’s clear that our willpower is a limited resource.

What are the ways we deplete our willpower throughout the day?

Here are some of the majors ways in which we deplete our willpower without even noticing it:

  • Sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep impairs the normal function of prefrontal cortex (part of the brain that is responsible for willpower). Even one night without proper rest can leave you with very little willpower available. Keep in mind that if you are getting less than 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis, you  probably are sleep deprived.
  • Stress. When you are under stress (which includes anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.), your brain tries to nudge you to get a reward  by making your cravings stronger in hopes that it will make you feel better, which  makes temptations even more appealing than usual. This is why we turn to junk food, alcohol, drugs, computer games,   and many other ways to “escape” when we are feeling bad.
  • Every decision that you make (no matter how small!).  We have an incredible amount of choices, from foods we eat  to sex partners, available compared to our ancestors. The problem is that every choice that we make, such as whether to eat yoghurt or muesli, costs us cognitive energy, or, in other words,  our willpower.

This is a quite problematic. On one hand, many adults are getting too little sleep, are under too much stress, and have to make too many decisions everyday. On the other hand, these same people need a lot of  willpower in order to stay healthy, maintain their relationships, and advance their careers. What on Earth should they do about this?

How to preserve your willpower?

Here are some strategies that will help you to preserve your willpower:

  • Get enough sleep. We tend to see sleep as a luxury as opposed to necessity which it really is. This is plain stupid when you consider the effects even mild sleep deprivation has on our  cognitive abilities. You have to understand that sleeping too little  means that you will not be able to make good decisions the following day. I suggest you to view getting enough sleep as your responsibility if you are really serious about achieving your goals.
  • Reduce stress. There are usually one or two main sources of stress in our lives: psycho girlfriend, jackass boss, job we hate,  credit card debt, etc. Figure out what it is for you and then take steps to either fix these situations or remove yourself from them. Also, make sure to include  some time for stress-relieving activities, such as exercises, creative hobbies, or massages in your schedule.
  • Reduce the amount of decisions that you make throughout the day. Now that you know that every single decision depletes your willpower, it’s time to ask yourself what choices do you make everyday, and are they really worth the expense. Are you sure you really want to spend your limited cognitive resources on choosing what to eat for lunch every single day? Take a close look at the decisions you make, and eliminate those that don’t add much to your life, but deplete your willpower.
  • Reduce the amount of willpower that you need to stay on track. We spend way more willpower on things than we should because we are not conscious about it. Why not get rid of all the junk food in your house so you wouldn’t have to resist the temptation every time you open the fridge? What about using software that blocks access to distracting websites instead of having the “to check or not to check my e-mail”  dilemma every 5 minutes? And maybe you could even automate your finances in order have more peace of mind? Look for  ways to achieve your goals with the minimum amount of willpower necessary.
  • Keep it real: some things are not going to happen. Most of us  overestimate how much willpower we will have in the future. Look, sorry to break it to you, but a trip to Italy is not the best time to go on slow carb diet, especially if you love pizza and pasta. Don’t put yourself into situations where you will inevitably fail and then feel bad about yourself: don’t get on the slippery slope of “I will only eat three potato crisps/ I will only play WoW for 15 minutes/I will only watch one episode of “Breaking Bad”/etc.”. Schedule time to indulge guilt-free instead and stay away from temptations the rest of the time.

It’s important to understand that squandering our willpower on trivial stuff leaves us with less of it available for situations that really matter.  Using these strategies will help you have more willpower  when you really need it. Make sure that you apply them in your own life!

Stop beating yourself up, it’s ridiculous!

You wouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to run a marathon when you have a broken leg or for not being able to  run one every single day, would you?

Well, the reason why we don’t have these ridiculous expectations for ourselves is because we know how our bodies work, and we acknowledge our physical limitation.

It’s clear that willpower is also a physical phenomenon: it’s a function of our brain. Yet, we constantly put ourselves in situations which  make exerting willpower very difficult , and then  beat ourselves up for the apparent “weakness of our characters”.  This doesn’t make any sense.

You are not weak if you can’t run a marathon with a broken leg, and you are not weak if you struggle with self-control when you are sleep deprived, stressed out, or suffering from decision fatigue.  You are simply human. Stop beating yourself up for it!

P.S. Now, that you have learned how to preserve your willpower, maybe you would also like to learn how to increase it? Take a look at this article.


Agota Bialobzeskyte is the author of “Relaxed productivity”, a book about getting things done when working from home. Tired of constantly feeling stressed out and not accomplishing as much as you would like to? There’s a way to get more done, in less time, with less stress. Get a FREE chapter “How To Increase Your Willpower” today!