Running out of willpower – and how to recharge it

Old friends. Source: Geoffrey Chandler via Flickr

So it’s finally hit SWOTVAC, that stressful end of semester period when everything seems to be due at once. You may have exams looming, or a few thousand words worth of essays (due on Friday but none of which you’ve started). With all the pressure, you know you need to exercise a little (or a lot of) self-control to avoid the myriad of distractions assaulting your mind from every angle. But where, oh where, will that willpower come from, and how on earth will you maintain focus for long periods of time?

Well it turns out that willpower is widely considered to be a finite resource, which you can run out of if you overuse it. This makes follow up tasks requiring this ethereal substance much, much harder. When you hit the gym, you push your muscles to fatigue; willpower seems to work in much the same way.

Using up your willpower

The experiments that led to the development of the so-called “Self-Control Strength Model” were (in my opinion) a little sadistic: put a bunch of hungry undergrads in a room with a plate of delicious chocolate chip cookies, and tell half of them instead to only chow down on a plate of radishes. Then give the entire group an impossible puzzle, and see who gives up quickest.

The results spoke for themselves, with the lucky full-of-cookie students persisting with the puzzle for (on average) more than double the time of those fed on radishes. Resisting the lure of chocolaty deliciousness tired the students’ self-control muscle – understandably so, poor things – so flexing it again in the puzzle stage would require a herculean effort.

And if your thinking what I’m thinking, I’m sure the researchers considered the fact the students might just have low blood sugar from undernourishment.

The research in the field points to real life situations that deplete your willpower. Being nice to a frustrating colleague, forcing yourself to the gym when you really don’t want to, or ignoring that cat photo on Facebook when you’re studying hard.

Refuelling the will

So we can exhaust our willpower tank. But that begs the question, how do we refill it?

Well, there’s a whole host of ways to do this. Social interaction with close friends and family, self-affirmation (basically, feeling good about yourself) or getting stuck into a big bowl of chicken soup all seem to do the trick.

But my favourite, by a long way: watching old reruns of your favourite TV show.

Seriously. When your willpower muscle is tired, don’t stress, or push on with self-deprivation – just go sit on the couch and put on your favourite episode of, well, anything familiar! Whoever designed this system is a god (maybe literally?).

The logic behind this is fairly simple – old TV shows are fictional worlds that seem to serve as a stand-in for social interaction. They’re familiar and comfortable, the characters feel like old friends and the mystery is solved (so you know there’ll be a happy ending). No stress required.

But stay away from new episodes – the familiarity is very important here! In this case, the unknown is truly scary.

So this SWOTVAC, when my eyes begin to wander from the textbook to Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other creative procrastination methods I can devise, I think I’ll just head for the couch. It’s time I reacquaint myself with my old friends, The Simpsons.

N.B. For the purposes of this post I’ve ignored the recent studies disputing the model of willpower as a finite resource. If you’d like to read up on this, here’s a good place to start

Further reading

Interviews with Jaye Derrick (UB) about TV reruns

The Science of Willpower: Kelly McGonigal at TEDxBayArea

One Response to “Running out of willpower – and how to recharge it”

  1. alexiswl says:

    Thank you for providing me with another excuse not to write my thesis!
    Unfortunate that new episodes are forbidden, I’m barely through any of my Netflix shows 🙁