Often when we try to focus on a task or avoid temptation we try to use all our willpower. We invest all our energy into concentrating on one thing or not thinking about the temptation. However, a study has shown that when we do this we deplete our willpower. The harder we try the more we end up fatigued and out of strength, just like the participants in the experiment.
In 1996, Roy Baumeister together with his Case Western Reserve University colleagues examined the workings of willpower. To do so they created an experiment that was somewhat cruel. They engaged participants in a food challenge that aimed to deplete the participants’ will power.
The experiment involved 67 study participants. The participants were led into a room that had the aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies. The actual cookies and other chocolate-flavored confectionary were then brought into the room.
Some of the participants were given permission to eat the chocolate sweets while the participants who formed the experimental condition group were told to eat radishes instead.
Many of the people who were left to eat radishes “exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them,” the scientists wrote in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper.
The Experimental Results
After the cookie and radish part of the experiment Baumeister’s team gave the participants another test that was seemingly unrelated. This test involved solving a persistence-testing puzzle. The participants were led to believe that they were undertaking an intelligence test but the real test was to see how long the students would persist before giving up.
The participants who had been allowed to eat the chocolate treats worked on the puzzle for an average of 20 minutes. The radish eaters didn’t last nearly this long. On average they gave up after only 8 minutes.
Thus, those people who had to resist the confectionary and eat the plain vegetables could not engage in a second demanding task. Their willpower was already drained and they were too tired.
Interpretation Of The Results
For most of history it was commonly believed that willpower is a virtue that you either possess or lack. This however, is not the case as some days we have more willpower to, say for example do a good job at work.
The central finding of this study was a breakthrough.
It was learnt that: “self-control is a general strength that’s used across different sorts of tasks — and it could be depleted. This proved that self-regulation is not a skill to be mastered or a rote function that can be performed with little consequence. It’s like using a muscle: After exercising it, it loses its strength, gets fatigued, and becomes ineffectual, at least in the short-term.”
In other words, willpower isn’t a skill at all. It is actually more like a muscle. And like other muscles in the body, willpower gets exhausted from overuse.
How To Improve Your Willpower
The good news is that willpower can be strengthened with practice.
In his article Colin Robertson writes: “The key is to focus on simply taking it one goal at a time. When you focus on one goal at a time, you actually strengthen your willpower!”
If we try to do too much, like, for example go on a diet and try to focus intensely on our work we end up depleting our willpower. We are like the radish eaters we took too much on ourselves and ended up getting fatigued.
It is like going to the gym and trying to bench press an enormous weight; you will end up failing. If, however, you start slowly with a smaller weight you can gradually build up muscle strength and in the end you will be bench pressing heavy weights.
So next time you want to focus on a task or avoid temptation try starting small. Give yourself bit size manageable goals and by achieving them over time you will strengthen your willpower and in the end you will have the power to accomplish more.