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How To Refill Your Willpower Tank


This article in 'Psychology Today' by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister's work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I'd also had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It's like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he's in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This 'strength' or 'ego depletion' theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like its on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it'll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up.

No weight trainer or body builder says, "I'm going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever," yet you're supposed to say, "I'm never going to have chocolate cake ever again." That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, "I'm going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can't, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that'll get easier and I'll increase the weight." I don't know what the cake equivalent is but it isn't, "None ever again." Work up to it.

Employers probably aren't directly interested in employees' cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you're leading someone at work who gives up, can't focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we're stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche 'Drill Sergeant' types who shout, "You're worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!" Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they're more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren't pushovers. They don't accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you're less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They're the supposed 'Superfruit.' You never hear of 'Supercake.' (If you have heard of 'Supercake', please do let me know...)