Can willpower run out?

You go on a diet, you promise to stop snacking in the evening, you decide to run every day for half an hour, you put an end to laziness, you buy books to learn Spanish… Each of us constantly decides to start doing something or stop doing something, but each of us sooner or later succumbs to the temptation . Finally, you will eat this cake dripping with creamy cream, you will forget about Spanish and running. And you’ll start to wonder, how could this happen? Why did you stop controlling yourself? Could your free strength be exhausted?

Ego depletion

Self-control, commonly called willpower, describes the mental processes that make it possible to restrain thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that conflict with a long-term goal. Self-control is therefore one of the basic functions responsible for inhibiting dominant, automatic reactions. It is associated with positive effects in everyday life, with professional achievements, less impulsive behavior (e.g. overeating), better mental and physical health. However, not everyone and not always are able to stick to their resolutions.

About twenty years ago, American psychologist Roy Baumeister theorized that our capacity for self-control has finite resources that are running out. This assumption is known as ego depletion (ego depletion). Immediately after an activity that uses willpower, we are susceptible to coping worse with subsequent tasks requiring self-control. When you constantly have to control yourself, which is difficult, eventually you start taking actions that require no effort or control. In short, when we get tired, we lose the ability to control ourselves and our willpower weakens. This is why when we are on a diet, we end up snacking and why we quickly forget about our New Year’s resolutions.

Self-control has limited resources.
Self-control has limited resources.

Decision exhaustion

Willpower is understood as the ability to act in accordance with one’s intentions. Therefore, persevering with our resolutions is essentially constantly making specific decisions during which we control our choices and prioritize long-term goals over momentary pleasures. Meanwhile, nowadays, every day we make many everyday, ordinary decisions and tasks that require us to be involved and resist temptations. A book or videos on YouTube, exercising or lying on the couch, a quick snack from Żabka or eating healthy food, browsing Facebook at work or doing another task. Someone calculated that we make nearly 35,000 decisions every day. AND the more demanding tasks there are during the day, the more difficult it is to cope with them.

One of the most interesting studies that showed decision fatigue was a study conducted among judges granting parole. After analyzing more than 1,100 parole decisions, it turned out that prisoners whose applications were heard earlier in the day were more likely to be granted than applications heard later in the day, even if the cases were very similar. The judges were so exhausted from making decisions that they more often chose the option that did not require any effort, i.e. refusing to grant parole.

We make too many decisions on a daily basis.
We make too many decisions on a daily basis.

Ego depletion also occurs when you need to control your thoughts and emotions, inhibit impulsive reactions, or manage your behavior. The more factors occurring at once, the faster self-control resources will be exhausted.

Factors that exhaust us mentally include:

  1. Unknown surroundings or doing new things – new challenges require more energy from us.
  2. Doing or saying something that goes against what you believe in – so-called Cognitive dissonance is mentally exhausting.
  3. Low blood sugar – when the blood glucose level drops, we are less resistant to all temptations. This is why the diet is so difficult to maintain.
Can willpower be recharged?
Can willpower be recharged?

Willpower charging

Roy Baumeister compared self-control to a muscle that may be tired and not working properly. And since willpower is like a muscle, it should be rebuilt after rest, but it can also be trained. There are several small solutions that can train self-control and minimize the depletion of its resources:

  1. One habit at a time – the most common mistake of New Year’s resolutions is the desire to change several habits at the same time. It’s better to reserve your willpower for one, most important change.
  2. Preparing for a crisis – since you already know that your free will may run out, it is worth anticipating what you will do then. For example, if you’re going to someone’s birthday party and you know you’re going to get cake, then you might decide to ask for a glass of water. This gives you a chance to think about your choice before temptation occurs.
  3. Get some sleep – sleep resets willpower and in the morning we wake up with a new resource.
  4. Manage stress – how many times have you given up cigarettes, but when you were nervous you returned to the habit of smoking? In stressful situations, we have very little willpower, so it is worth mastering the ability to cope with stress.
  5. Rinse your mouth with fresh water – according to some studies, reduced blood glucose levels reduce self-control. However, it is enough to gargle with a drink containing glucose to eliminate the effect of ego depletion (gargle effect). Glucose activates receptors located in the mouth and tongue, which in turn stimulates the activity of brain regions associated with the reward system and self-control. Interestingly, when subjects were given a solution containing an artificial sweetener (without glucose), the depletion effect was not reduced.
  6. Make fewer decisions – every decision requires time and energy, so instead of wasting it on trivial choices, you can simplify a lot of trivial things and focus on important activities. This is why Mark Zuckerberg wears a plain gray T-shirt every day, because he doesn’t want to waste energy on something as insignificant as deciding what to wear. Barack Obama did the same. It is also a good idea to stick to a routine, waking up or eating at a fixed time to avoid wasting energy on making unnecessary decisions.
Limit unnecessary decision-making
Limit unnecessary decision-making.

Believe that willpower is unlimited

However, in recent years, data has begun to emerge questioning the existence of the ego depletion phenomenon itself.

When it was described in 1998, hundreds of studies had been conducted in which a group of people performed one task after another, assessing focus or willpower. For example, it was found that people who refrained from eating chocolates in the first phase of the experiment were later more frustrated and less persistent when solving a complex logic puzzle.

However, after many years of admiration for the ego depletion theory, someone finally decided to repeat the dual-task study and it turned out that the results of the first studies were not confirmed. It also turned out that in the first willpower tests, only those results were published that confirmed the ego depletion theory. Therefore, another group undertook research and determined that the mere fact that a group of people solves certain tasks cannot provide clear conclusions as to whether the phenomenon of ego depletion actually exists or not.

Truth is what you believe
Truth is what you believe.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one study that showed that if you believe you have limited willpower, you will, and if you believe you have no limited resources when it comes to self-control, you will too. Likewise, if you think that your diet or running every day is a terrible hardship and a million challenges, it will be difficult to implement your resolutions and you will get tired faster, but if you will change your attitude and you find that avoiding temptations is not tiring at all, but natural, requiring no effort – then that’s how it will be. That is the strength of your own beliefs about willpower is the key to success and perseverance in all resolutions. Also New Year’s Eve.


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