Key To Success: Willpower Is A Limited Resource

Doctor Roy Baumeister brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some subjects were asked to sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Afterward, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people who ate radishes (and resisted the enticing cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average. Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies, it seemed, drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations. Since this experiment, many more studies, experiences, and tests have shown willpower is a limited resource capable of running low.

This has important impacts around setting goals and living your best life. You can’t effectively will yourself to do things all the time, because willpower is a limited resource. It must be used wisely; you risk entering into situations depleted or risk losing out on rare opportunities.

Willpower Is Like A Muscle

I have been considering taking the LSAT if I end up unable to find a suitable career as an engineer. As a part of studying for this law school admissions test, the famous Mike Kim (author of The LSAT Trainer) describes our minds in two parts: the elephant and the rider.

The elephant, capable of great strength, cannot be “willed about” by the rider without training. Hop on a wild elephant and see how well that goes for you. Mike Kim, and many others, liken our habits and routines to the elephant, while our conscious mind is the rider.

That rider, willpower, has limited strength. It cannot train the elephant in one day, and it certainly cannot drive the elephant to do things it has not been trained to do. However, the rider can build an environment or regularly train the elephant in order to do things once believed impossible.

The Elephant

Thus, the elephant and the rider: habits and conscious will. The elephant can do the heavy lifting, whether solving LSAT/ACT/SAT/MCAT questions or driving a 3,500 pound car 70+ MPH down a freeway. The rider, our conscious will, is not meant to do that. It is best used to train the elephant and to make critical decisions when needed to.

Willpower Is A Limited Resource. Feed it… Sugar?

“Glucose, a form of sugar, is the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. Because the brain is so rich in nerve cells, or neurons, it is the most energy-demanding organ, using one-half of all the sugar energy in the body.” – Harvard Medical School

You can’t just continually eat table sugar and generate infinite self-control. But, make sure that your brain (and body) are well-fed. Added sugar is definitely not healthy, but if eating a bowl of lucky charms or having a glass of orange juice is standing between you and a nice morning run then go for it!

Of course, don’t overdo it. One single honey-waffle per day, for a week or two, is all we really need. Note that this does not work if you have health/dietary restrictions. But, if you find yourself struggling to keep your cool around someone who really bothers you, find some healthy sugar if you can. Here are some examples.

Understanding the needs of the human body is a central theme of this article, which is why I mention sugar. You need sugar to survive, and you can get it from fruits and vegetables. Eating something like a banana or a cup of blueberries in the morning will legitimately help restore your willpower and provide healthy energy for your brain and mind. If you aren’t providing adequate fuel to your body, how can you reasonably expect it to function well?

You Need Willpower To Get Started

You need some willpower and discipline to do the basics, at least until your newly found habit (elephant) is doing all of the hard work. Willpower is the beginning, not the end.

Willpower is important. Without it, I would not be able to get out of bed at 6:20 AM for my run. But, once I get out of bed, my newly formed habit takes over. At that point, there is almost nothing that can stop my 2.5 mile loop. Getting out of bed is actually the hardest part because it is the only part of the morning I have to consciously use energy for. Habits do the rest of the work. It’s amazing!

Without willpower, habits would be moving us around everywhere–like a rider asleep on an elephant. It may go eat some grass, sit around, and drag the sleepy rider along. With some willpower, however, you can train your elephant to move mountains.

Willpower Is Limited, So Use It Wisely!

Research shows that you only have so much self-control/willpower until you get angry, make avoidable mistakes, and things go generally poorly. As a result, you should use it wisely. Train good habits to do the heavy lifting.

Using willpower wisely is no more than being aware of human limitations.

In The Art Of War by ancient general Sun Tzu, he states it so well:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle

Sun Tzu

The important message here is know yourself, and I think knowing that willpower is very limited resource in everyone is a great first step.

Final Note: How To Tell If Willpower is Mis-Allocated

If you find yourself using considerable willpower throughout the day, and it’s not intentional, something is probably going wrong. Life is easy in the way that habits do almost all of the heavy lifting. Seriously, a habit like driving a car is the most insane thing if you think about it, but it is so easy to do after developing the habit. That’s what I mean by life is easy–habits are able to provide so much if trained well.

If you find yourself with no willpower, you should use the miracle of compounding to help make it grow. Start with something super small, but super intentional like reading a single page from a book every day for a week or doing 5 minutes of Duolingo before bed. Or even having a banana with breakfast! Something you can totally follow through with. I can’t tell you what to do, I don’t think anyone can, but you should do something if you want to.

If you find yourself bumping around between various conflicting long-term goals (med school! Eh… never mind. How about lawyer? Just kidding… pilot? Nah… politician?) then you may benefit from focusing on the near term. What goals can you set and achieve today? Nobody becomes a doctor overnight–for good reason! Baby steps are very important.

Knowing yourself–and knowing billions of others–by understanding how willpower is not infinite will help the world make a bit more sense. I hope you benefit from this knowledge and can use it to make your life the best it can be.

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