We have lots of it sometimes, but other times it’s frustratingly difficult to locate. In order to use it optimally, it’s worth knowing a bit more about it.
So – is it a skill? A muscle? A finite resource or something that can be worked on?
These were questions asked and indeed answered by Case Western Reserve University researcher Mark Muraven in the early part of the last decade.
He devised an experiment whereby two groups of hungry students were asked to sit in a room for 5 minutes. Each group was only allowed eat one of two foods in the room. One group was asked to eat as many warm cookies as they wished, while the other group was asked to ignore the tempting smell of the cookies and eat instead from the bowl of radishes.
Following this task, both groups were asked to sit and attempt a geometry puzzle which was in fact impossible to solve.
What Muraven and his team were looking for was to see which group would stay with the problem longer, which group had the willpower to stick with it even though it wasn’t in fact solvable.
And what they found was the group who had eaten the cookies worked at the puzzle – generally in a relaxed manner – for on average 19 minutes. In contrast, the group whose reserves of willpower had already been depleted due to earlier having to ignore the cookies, worked on the puzzle for an average of 8 minutes, and were generally more frustrated and annoyed by it than the first group.
Muraven’s conclusion? Willpower is a finite resource. It’s like a muscle – it gets tired and the more you use it the less effective it becomes for future tasks.
So if you want to do something that requires willpower late in the day (like going for a run after work), it’s important that you conserve your willpower resources during the day, or else it’s unlikely you’ll choose the run over the couch.
It’s also why you should try and achieve whatever tasks you deem to be most important earlier in the day – when your willpower reserves are at their highest.
And I was alerted to this study and theory by Charles Duhigg’s book – The Power of Habit.