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Many people assume that willpower is fixed and finite. But, there are effective ways that can assist us in increasing it.
We all have demanding days that seem meant to put our self-control to the test. You may work as a barista and have to deal with some extremely unpleasant and demanding customers, but you maintain your cool throughout. Or you are completing an essential project and must maintain peaceful concentration without allowing your mind to wander to other distractions. If you’re on a diet, you may have spent the last few hours fighting the cookie jar while the delicious goodies secretly begged you to consume them.
In each scenario, you would have relied on your willpower, which psychologists define as rejecting short-term temptations and overriding undesired thoughts, sensations, or impulses. And some people appear to have far larger reserves of it than others: they find it easier to manage their emotions, avoid procrastination, and stick to their goals without ever appearing to lose control of their conduct. True, you may know some fortunate people who, after a long day at work, resolve to do something beneficial, such as exercise – while you abandon your fitness objectives and succumb to the lures of junk food and trash TV.
Mindsets shape our reserves of self-control and mental focus. Yet new research suggests effective techniques for everyone to develop more willpower, with significant benefits for their health, productivity, and happiness.
The drained ego
Until recently, the dominant psychological theory stated that willpower was analogous to a battery. You may begin the day with full strength, but every time you have to exert control over your thoughts, feelings, or conduct, you drain the battery’s charge. Those resources deplete dangerously without the opportunity to relax and recharge, making it significantly more difficult to retain patience and attention and avoid temptation.
Laboratory tests appeared to provide evidence for this process; for example, if participants were challenged to avoid eating cookies left temptingly on a table, they exhibited less tenacity when solving a mathematical problem because their supplies of willpower had been depleted. This process was dubbed “ego depletion” after the Freudian name for the part of the mind responsible for controlling our urges. Individuals with good self-control may have greater stores of willpower at first, but even they will be worn down when put under duress.
Nevertheless, in 2010, psychologist Veronika Job released a study that called into question the theory’s underpinnings, providing fascinating evidence that ego depletion depended on people’s fundamental beliefs.
Job administered normal laboratory procedures to the subjects to assess mental attention, which is thought to depend on our stores of willpower. Job discovered that persons with a constrained perspective tended to behave just as ego depletion theory predicted. They found it significantly more difficult to pay attention to a subsequent activity after performing one task that required intense focus, such as applying tedious changes to a monotonous text. On the other hand, those with a non-limited perspective showed no evidence of ego depletion: they showed no drop in mental attention after doing a mentally challenging activity.
Willpower depends on you
The individuals’ attitudes of willpower proved to be self-fulfilling. If they believed that willpower was rapidly depleted, their capacity to resist temptation and distraction quickly vanished; nevertheless, if they believed that “mental stamina fuels itself,” this is precisely what happened.
Job quickly repeated these findings in different scenarios. Working with Krishna Savani at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, she discovered that willpower beliefs differ by country. They discovered that non-limited mindsets were more widespread among Indian pupils than in students in the United States, as evidenced by tests of mental stamina.
Additional research revealed that willpower attitudes could predict students’ procrastination levels in the run-up to tests – those with non-limited perspectives wasted less time – and their final marks. In addition, students with non-limited views were better able to maintain self-control in other aspects of life when under pressure from their classes; they were less inclined to eat fast food or go on an impulsive buying spree, for example.
On the other hand, those who considered their job quickly destroyed their willpower were more inclined to engage in those vices, presumably because they felt their academic work had already depleted their self-control.
Willpower attitudes may have an impact on several domains, including fitness. Navin Kaushal, an assistant professor of health sciences at Indiana University in the United States, and colleagues, for example, have demonstrated that they can alter individuals’ exercise habits; persons with non-limited ideas about willpower find it simpler to summon the urge to work out.
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A study by Zo Francis, a University of Fraser Valley psychology professor, yielded startlingly comparable results. For three weeks, she observed over 300 individuals and discovered that persons with non-restricted thoughts are more inclined to exercise and less likely to snack than those with limited views. The disparities are most noticeable in the evenings when the pressures of the day’s responsibilities have begun to take their toll on individuals who believe that self-control may be readily depleted.