You’ve probably heard that if you practice self-control all day — perhaps to avoid the doughnut at breakfast and drag yourself to the gym instead of happy hour after work — you’ll be so depleted…
You’ve probably heard that if you practice self-control all day — perhaps to avoid the doughnut at breakfast and drag yourself to the gym instead of happy hour after work — you’ll be so depleted you’ll binge on ice cream and Netflix after dinner. Better to save your good decision-making skills for the tasks that really matter, they say.
But you’ve probably also heard a seemingly contradictory line of reasoning: Start the day with a valiant display of willpower — say, resisting the pull of a warm bed to exercise — and you’ll set off a good decision-making chain all day, opting for the salad at lunch and for extra sleep over watching TV late into the evening. Use your willpower “muscle,” the theory goes, or lose it.
So what’s right? Is self-control a depletable resource to be dipped into sparingly, or does willpower beget willpower? As with most questions of human nature, the answer is complicated and evolving. “It’s not all or nothing — it’s not either you’re so super strong … or you give up,” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist who directs Alvord, Baker & Associates, a psychotherapy practice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
For one, the notion that we all have a fixed amount of willpower like a car has a fixed amount of fuel is controversial in the scientific community. While a robust body of research supports it — some studies have even showed thinking-related brain activity decreases after marathon self-control sessions, the American Psychological Association reports — the more modern consensus is that much of this research is deeply flawed, says Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who studies self-control.
After all, willpower isn’t a physical thing like an oxygen supply that can run dry or a leg muscle that can be worked to exhaustion. “It’s not clear you actually have ‘a willpower'” says Hedy Kober, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Yale University School of Medicine.
That’s not to say that, taken less literally, the concept of your willpower “running out” doesn’t hold water. Indeed, using self-control over and over can be emotionally and mentally exhausting and lead people to be less motivated to keep using it, Inzlicht says. “You’re willing to work hard for yourself and other people to a certain extent, but after a while (you think), ‘I’ve done my bit, now it’s me time. It’s not that I can’t do chores right now or cook for my kids, it’s that I don’t feel like it,'” Inzlicht says. “Then it becomes a question about a decision.” His research suggests, for example, that people can continue to use self-control when they feel depleted if the reward for using it — which in some studies’ is money — is worth it.
At the same time, the idea that willpower only gets stronger with use overlooks a key part of the muscle analogy: Sure, engaging your muscles makes them stronger over the long term, but it also tires them out in the short term. A 2017 meta-analysis of 33 studies out of Saarland University in Germany suggests it might be more accurate to think about willpower like a tool: something you get better at using with practice, but not something that actually develops with practice. Put another way, doing a bicep curl may strengthen your bicep and your ability to use a dumbbell, but the dumbbell itself won’t grow — nor will it be useful for developing your glute strength.
“If you inhibit your eating, you’re going to get really good at inhibiting you’re eating,” Inzlicht says. “But you’re not going to be good at studying for algebra or not smoking to not responding emotional to your kids.”
What is clear, though, is that good self-control is worth having: Research following babies born in New Zealand for decades has found that children who scored highly in self-control were less likely to die early, abuse drugs or alcohol, suffer from mental health disorders and experience many more negative health consequences. It also seems worth believing, at least, that willpower is unlimited, since research suggests that people who believe they have an endless well of self-control fare better, perhaps because they’re not rationing their good-decision making. And while the good self-control seems to be relatively stable throughout life, strengthening it — or, more accurately, harnessing other strategies to work around needing to use it — pays off. Here’s what psychologists suggest:
1. Re-frame your goals.
It’s a whole lot easier to do something because you want to do it than to do something because you’ve mustered up enough self-control, Inzlicht says. The trick, then, is reframing your goals so they align with your values, activities or feelings you truly enjoy. For example, cleaning your closet because you love the feeling of accomplishment it brings takes less willpower than cleaning it because you should. With practice, you’ll associate cleaning with a positive feeling more than a negative feeling and the action will become more effortless, Inzlicht says. To reach that point, though, isn’t easy. “It involves some mental gymnastics,” he says.
2. Set yourself up for success.
You could use willpower and willpower alone to study every Tuesday morning, resist the cookies every time you walk past the cabinet and walk 10,000 steps every day. Or, you could make a standing study date with a friend, not buy cookies to put in your cabinet and park your car such that you simply must meet your step count if you’re going to make it to work. Alvord, for example, puts structures in place so that she doesn’t often need willpower to resist her vice: sweets. “If I want to get off sweets for a while, I just don’t bake cookies, I don’t have them around, I don’t tempt myself,” she says. “That’s not resisting your urge, it’s planning your environment to support you.” Tracking your progress is a well-supported strategy for sticking to your goals, too, Alvord adds. No fancy apps necessary: A notepad (physical or digital) tracking each purchase made, for example, can help you resist the temptation to shop.
3. Recite your reasons for making the change.
In a recent study, Kober and colleagues found that training people to think about either the negative consequences of eating unhealthy foods or the positive consequences of having healthy foods shifted their cravings so that, eventually, they made better food choices and ate less with less effort. While simply knowing that eating fried foods all the time may raise your risk for heart disease isn’t enough, constantly reminding yourself of that — as well as the immediate uncomfortable consequences like heartburn — makes those consequences more mentally accessible so that when the moment arises to resist temptations, it’s not so hard, Kober explains. “To really change your choices, you need to think about the information and process it over and over,” she says.
There are, of course, times when you’ll need to use self-control to resist something that may be momentarily appealing but that you know won’t serve you longer term. Good luck calling on that willpower If you’re exhausted. “When you’re sleep deprived, your motivation goes way down, your body is just tired and you’re not apt to make good choices because you’re not thinking as clearly,” Alvord says. Instead, setting up structures to support good sleep habits — say, setting an alarm on your phone for bedtime or programming your TV or social media feeds to shut down after a certain hour — can reduce the need for willpower not only at bedtime, but also related to any other healthy decisions you’re faced with during the day to come.