Why It's Impossible To 'Run Out' Of Willpower

A loss of self-control (such as giving up on a diet) is usually caused by changing priorities rather than the exhaustion of willpower, new international research has found. While contributing factors such as mounting fatigue can affect motivation, the concept that self-control is a finite resource is simply false.

Willpower picture from Shutterstock

At the beginning of each year, many of us toy with making ambitious life changes in a bid to improve various aspects of our lifestyles. By March, most of these new year's resolutions have been sheepishly swept under the carpet. This is usually put down to "running out" of self-control; particularly in the areas of diet and exercise.

However, new evidence suggests we should be blaming a conscious shift in priorities rather than depleted willpower; a concept we've touched on in the past.

"Self-control refers to the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions, thus enabling behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment," the Trends In Cognitive Sciences report explains.

"The dominant view is that control is based on some limited resource or energy; engaging in acts of restraint depletes this inner capacity and undermines subsequent attempts at control. We suggest that apparent regulatory failures reflect the motivated switching of task priorities as people strive to strike an optimal balance between engaging cognitive labor to pursue ‘have-to’ goals versus preferring cognitive leisure in the pursuit of ‘want-to’ goals."

In other words, people experience a conscious switch in motivational priorities which results in working less for the things they feel obliged to do (through a sense of either duty, obligation or guilt) and working more for things they want to do (tasks that are personally gratifying). The concept of reaching a willpower/energy 'threshold' is rejected by the paper.

"Previous acts of cognitive effort lead people to prefer activities that they deem enjoyable over activities that they feel they ought to carry out because they correspond to some obligation or introjected goal."

Mind you, I'd still argue that believing in the limits of your willpower can prove beneficial when it comes to achieving personal goals. Employing various psychological tactics to "boost" your willpower can definitely motivate you to push that little bit further.

Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited [Trends In Cognitive Sciences]


    So in stark contrast to running out of willpower to not do that thing you didn't want to do, you re-prioritise that thing you didn't want to do above not doing it?
    This sounds to me like a handful of terminology and framing redefinitions which make no difference to predictions or outcomes (except to the extent that people may feel differently about 'willpower failures' or 're-prioritisations' because of the different framing they can use).

      I think it depends on what motivates you. Knowing that your willpower is a limitless resource could help you to keep your priorities in check, whereas the concept of a depleting 'willpower tank' makes it easier to give up.

      On the other hand, believing your willpower has a ceiling does give you something to push towards, so it really comes down to the individual.

    Self-control means forcing yourself to do / not do something that you don't really want to, but think you have to or should do. So, you have to deal with what's going underneath, instead of trying to bulldozer through it and force the desired outcome. When you force it, eventually you will stop, if for no other reason than it's stressful and hard to sustain.

    Genuine change doesn't come by using willpower or motivational 'fake it till you make it' techniques, it's actually an emotional response and therefore far more natural. When it happens you don't have to fight it, or use willpower to make yourself do it - it just comes naturally.

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