Want To Boost Your Willpower? Start By Believing You Can
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Every entrepreneur wishes they had more willpower. Willpower is associated with higher levels of self-discipline, which in turn leads to higher productivity, output and success. Yet, you know that willpower is a limited and finite resource- like a muscle, overuse will lead to fatigue and eventual failure.
But is that really the truth? The theory of limited willpower, known as ego depletion, was first put forth by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, whose 1998 paper Ego Depletion: Is The Active Self A Limited Resource? has been cited over 4,000 times on Google Scholar. In one of the experiments used in the study, participants who had to exert self-control by choosing to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates quit faster when subsequently asked to solve an unsolvable puzzle. This led researchers to conclude that exerting self-control in prior situations depleted self-control reserves in future situations.
The implication of this study has led to two main conclusions. The first is that you should not rely on your willpower to get things done; instead, creating habits and routines that set you up for success is a much better strategy. The second is that since willpower is like a muscle, it can and should be trained like any other muscle to become stronger and more resilient.
Ego depletion, including its subsequent implications, seems to have become accepted theory at this point. But just how sound is this theory?
While dozens of studies subsequent to the Baumeister’s 1998 study supposedly replicated similar results, the most recent studies challenge that assertion. In 2015, a meta-analysis of all the previous studies strongly challenged the idea that self-control was a limited psychological resource. When analyzing the previous experiments empirically, the researchers found little evidence that ego depletion was a real phenomenon.
That isn’t the only study challenging the supposed ego depletion effect. Another 2016 multi-lab study involving over 2,000 participants, using a similar sequential task protocol concluded that the size of the ego depletion effect was small. Smaller studies conducted in 2014 and 2016 also failed to replicate the ego depletion effect with any real statistical significance.
Regardless of how real the ego depletion effect is, you probably don’t believe that your own willpower is unlimited. When you struggle with the everyday grind of fighting procrastination and delaying gratification to get things done, it seems almost impossible to believe that willpower is an unlimited resource.
Yet, believing that willpower is an unlimited resource is your best bet for actually increasing your willpower and motivation.
In one of the most interesting findings in willpower research, researchers have found that people who believe that willpower is an unlimited resource actually demonstrated higher levels of actual self-control.
In one 2010 study, researchers found that those who viewed the capacity for self-control as unlimited didn’t show any reduced self-control after a depleting experience. They found that the participants’ implicit theories about willpower predicted changes in procrastination, goal-striving, and even eating behavior in depleting circumstances.
In a later 2015 study of over 600 participants, researchers found that participants with a limited theory about willpower had lesser degrees of not only self-control, but personal goal striving and subjective well-being.
So, is willpower truly unlimited?
At the moment, the science appears inconclusive and the verdict is still out. What is not in doubt is that regardless of the true nature of willpower, your own beliefs about willpower have a demonstrable effect on your own level of willpower.
Hence, regardless of the objective truth, you would be best served by believing that willpower truly is unlimited. It appears that in this specific case, blind faith really is for the best.