It’s 4pm at the office. Your last cup of coffee has worn off and you’re officially stuck in the afternoon slump. How do you stay on track, when all you want to do is nap?
Your natural instinct is to muscle through it. You rely on sheer willpower to concentrate harder or avoid a temptation. But a study has shown that by taking that approach, you actually deplete your willpower. The harder you try, the more fatigued you get, and the less energy you have left to complete the task at hand.
In 1996, Roy Baumeister and a group of Case Western Reserve University colleagues put willpower to the test in an experiment. The study’s 67 participants were led into a room that smelled like freshly baked chocolate cookies. The actual baked treats were then brought into the space. Some participants were given permission to devour the sweets, while others were told to eat radishes instead.
As you’d expect, the radishes group showed clear interest in the cookies, looking longingly at the display of sweets and in some cases even picking up the cookies to sniff them.
Following the first half of the experiment, Baumeister’s team then asked participants to solve a seemingly-unrelated persistence-testing puzzle. Those who ate the chocolate treats worked on the puzzle for an average of 20 minutes, while the radish eaters gave up after only 8 minutes. Why? Because those who had to resist the tempting baked treats had already depleted their willpower. There was little leftover to focus on a second demanding task.
The study’s central finding was ground-breaking because it disproved the notion that willpower is an innate virtue you either possess or don’t. Some days you’ll have it, some days you won’t, and, like a muscle after a strenuous workout, it can get fatigued and lose its strength. Overuse leads to exhaustion.
The good news is that, like that muscle, your willpower can be strengthened with practice. The key is to hone in on one thing at a time. Trying to change your sleep cycle, exercise more often, learn a new language, and cut out sugar all at the same time will sap your self-control. If, however, you start with one goal and gradually add more, you’ll end up with more willpower than you had starting out – not to mention new skills and a healthier life.