The Surprising Way Willpower Works

Milk & Cookies Allen Pope

It's like a renewable resource; you only have a limited amount available to you each day before it runs out.

Two years ago, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney published Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Their now famous book presents some fascinating insights on how willpower works, as well as some very definite do’s and don’ts for those of us who wrestle with life’s everyday temptations.

Here, for example, is a quiz question for you. See if you know better than I did how willpower works — or does not work — in this very common situation involving a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

Here’s the question: You’ve been faithfully saying no to sugar ever since — shall we say, Christmas 2010? Or maybe just since last Friday. This morning, however, your nearest neighbor rings the doorbell with — wouldn’t you know it? — a plate of still-warm chocolate chip cookies.

After a sincere “Oh, Jill, you shouldn’t have”, since Jill shouldn’t have, you allow this Trojan Horse into your home. But only for the rest of the family. When they come home later this afternoon. You yourself aren’t going to touch these cookies. So which of the following do you do?

  • Response No. 1: You put the plate of cookies on the dining room table, where you will look at them all day — but your will power, of course, will let you “just say no” to actually having any. Or —
  • Response No. 2: You put the plate of cookies out of sight in the refrigerator, or on a shelf, because you know that “out of sight, out of mind” is not only the best policy, it’s the only policy.

The answer, according to the experts: “Many dieters employ the out-of-sight-out-of-mind technique of hiding desirable food,” John Tierney, New York Times science writer and co-author of Willpower says, “and studies show there’s something to it.”

“Just putting food [that you should resist] next to you where you can see it,” Mr. Tierney explained in an interview on National Public Radio, “depletes your willpower.”

The Victorians, Mr. Tierney continues, looked at willpower as a form of “mental energy,” and recent studies confirm that willpower works very much like a muscle, in this way: Repeated use of any one of the body’s muscles during a single day and into the evening gradually “breaks the muscle down.”

A day or a day-and-a-half of rest is usually enough to rebuild a completely exercised muscle, and of course repeated “breaking down” and “rebuilding” of a muscle is entirely desirable, because regular exercise followed by rest is what makes a muscle stronger. We are talking about what we all do when we got to the gym, walk or run, or work out at home.

Willpower works the same way, Baumeister and Tierney explain in their book. At the point where a muscle is exhausted, it cannot be used further until the body has had a period of rest.

“You have only a finite amount of willpower as you go through the day,” co-author John Tierney emphasizes. That means, among other things, there may be days when you do not want to spend the day casually using up your will power. You may, for example, have a difficult meeting scheduled for that evening. Something work related, perhaps, or negotiations with an ex-spouse.

Doing something that exhausts your mental energy — known as “ego depletion” — is something you can control, Tierney says. There are times when you cannot avoid using up the amount of willpower you have for any one day. But, he adds, you can learn to manage your willpower —

  • Don’t let your kids wear you out.
  • Don’t play with your diet, tempting yourself at lunch, and with snacks in the morning, and all afternoon.
  • Don’t tempt yourself at the grocery store.
  • Don’t tempt yourself at the outlet mall.
  • Don’t tempt yourself with romantic encounters at work.
  • Don’t brood all day over a difficult decision yet to be made. Think about it, but don’t use up your mental energy rehearsing it.
  • Don’t spend the day reliving an angry moment from the day before.
  • Don’t spend the day fearing something that will take place at the end of the day, or that evening or night.

Some of these “don’ts” involve resisting temptation, some involve emotional control, and some involve decision-making — but they all involve “ego depletion,” the conserving or exhausting of mental energy. We can work in all these areas, and others like them, to manage the use of our mental energy in ways that will make our lives easier and more enjoyable.