Why There Are No Limits to Willpower

February 17, 2016

We’ve all experienced those moments when we’ve been working really hard on a task, finally finish and feel like a well-deserved break so we grab a coffee and relax for a few moments. What goes through your mind next? Do you believe you’ve reached as far as you can go that day, or do you feel energized for the next task, believing that your powers to keep focused are not depleted?

Research led by psychologist Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and others shed valuable light on the question of willpower and a person’s beliefs about it. Job found that if people believe their willpower is limited—and that they have a certain amount of it that will be used up—it will impact on their performance, particularly when they feel under pressure.

Their research was based on the “limited theory” of willpower, in which some people believe it is limited and needs to be replenished. However, others believe the opposite—that willpower is not limited and that they can activate it when they want to.

The best way to stay engaged and increase our sense of well-being is to keep in mind the goals which inspire us.

Psychologists conventionally thought that people who thought their willpower was limited could become more productive by conserving their energies and being selective in how they self-regulated their behavior. There has also been a belief that glucose intake can quickly restore someone’s belief that they can keep going, and that the waning of focus is mainly a product of fatigue.

Job’s research has overturned both of these assumptions. In her study, students with increasing course demands who thought their willpower was limited procrastinated more, ate more junk food and reported excessive spending compared with students who thought they had no limits on their willpower.

The research also showed that students who believed there were no limits to their willpower benefited from more demanding circumstances. These students appeared to perform better when having to work on several assignments due in close together. It seems as if they responded to increased pressure with greater engagement, whereas those who thought their willpower was limited found it more difficult to stay focused on a task and manage their independent study effectively as the demands increased. The evidence suggests that this difference is not influenced by academic ability.

Other research has shown that adults in work suffer the same kinds of negative consequences from holding a limited theory of willpower and that this also produces lower subjective well-being. It appears that these people don’t strive much towards their own personal goals—which would suggest they are much less likely to have “grit”.

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