The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


What Is 'Willpower Depletion'?

Willpower is a way to interrupt our automatic processing in order to do something else. It's best to assume your reserves of willpower are very limited, and to use your limited willpower to change your environment instead of your behavior.

Josh Kaufman Explains 'Willpower Depletion'

In the 1960s, Dr. Walter Mischel, a researcher at Columbia University, systematically tortured small children.

Here’s how he did it: Dr. Mischel placed the child in a small room with a table and a chair. In the middle of the table, Dr. Mischel would place a big, fluffy marshmallow, then tell the child, “if you wait until I come back, you can have two.” Then he’d leave.

Here’s what happened: some kids would gobble up the marshmallow seconds after the researcher left. Others made heroic efforts to distract themselves from temptation, forcing themselves to pay attention to something other than the marshmallow in an agonizing attempt to hold out long enough to get the bigger reward.

Mischel found a correlation between willpower and success: kids with a greater ability to “defer gratification” were more successful in school, as well as later on in life. Overriding our instincts can often make it possible to collect larger rewards later—spending is easy, but saving is not, even if the latter is more beneficial over time.

Willpower can be thought of as instinctual override — it’s a way to interrupt our automatic processing in order to do something else. Whenever we experience a situation in which it’s useful to inhibit our natural inclinations, willpower is required to keep us from responding. As such, willpower is a useful tool, but it has certain inherent limitations.

That's the idea of Willpower Depletion: our reserves of willpower are very limited, and become depleted with use. Dr. Roy Baumeister, a researcher at Florida State University, found that our ability to successfully use willpower for self-control tasks is dependent on a physiological fuel: blood glucose.

Acts of willpower deplete relatively large amounts of glucose, and when those stores run low, we have a hard time using willpower to inhibit behavior. That’s why it’s difficult to resist dishing up a bowl of ice cream at 8:30pm when you’re on a diet—by then, your stores of willpower are long gone.

The best way to use your limited reserves of willpower is to use Guiding Structure to change the structure of your environment instead of your behavior. For example, if you decide you want to quit eating ice cream, it doesn’t make sense to keep a tub in your freezer, then rely on your willpower to resist the temptation to eat it. That situation is a recipe for disappointment, and when your willpower inevitably fails, it’s easy to misinterpret the lapse as a fundamental character flaw, an example of the Attribution Error.

Instead, it’s much more effective to use a little willpower to remove the ice cream from your freezer entirely, either by giving it to someone else or throwing it away. By removing the ice cream from your Environment, no willpower is required — you’d actually have to go somewhere to get it, which takes effort. The path of least resistance changes accordingly, so if you’re hungry, you’ll eat something else — an apple, perhaps.

The Internet is a massive temptation to me — I love learning new things, and the Web contains enough interesting information to keep me endlessly occupied. It’s easier for me to spend time reading rather than writing, but I write on a computer, which is the equivalent of keeping ice cream in my freezer — it’s always there, tempting me away from writing.

Instead of constantly relying on my willpower to get this book done, I used a small amount of willpower to alter my environment by installing an application called Freedom on my Mac. The program temporarily disables Internet connectivity on my laptop, making it impossible for me to connect to the Internet for a few hours. (Windows users can accomplish the same result using a program called LeechBlock.) Temptation thus obliterated, I write. It’s safe to say that, without Freedom, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Save your willpower: focus on using it to change your environment, and you’ll have more available to use whenever Inhibition is necessary.

Questions About 'Willpower Depletion'


"If you don't want to slip, don't go where it's slippery."

Alcoholics Anonymous maxim

From Chapter 6:

The Human Mind


http://personalmba.com/willpower-depletion/



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The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

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