science-willpower

“Control yourself!” 

We all say it, mostly to ourselves. We say it when we ‘indulge’ in behaviors that cause short-term gain for long-term pain.  At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. How often can we resist a plate of fresh and crumbly cookies that lie on the table staring at us with joy of being eaten?  Well answer to this depends on what cognitive tasks we have been indulging in earlier in the day. Research conducted over the last two decades by US psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that willpower is a finite resource. It is like a reservoir that one needs to continuously refill otherwise it will lead to a state called ‘ego depletion’. This means the will power will become fatigued, and thus, will eventually make it difficult for the mind to concentrate on high cognitive and intellectual tasks. There comes a point when it loses all its energy and has no more strength left to keep itself motivated to work.

abeer-naseemThe concept of ego depletion can be understood by taking will power like a muscle. For a muscle to work at its best capacity, it needs to be strengthened by practice and has to be given an equivalent amount of rest. If the muscle will be over worked, it will not be able to perform to its optimal level in tasks that require its hard work. The muscle needs to be given the right amount of rest, to increase its strength and ability to work persistently, so is the case with the will power. When you have to control yourself, there is less willpower available to you for other parts of your life. This fact is a good one to know because people who lose their will-power often do things that they would rather not. They become aggressive, sexually impulsive, and give up too early on puzzles. But this has nothing to do with being physically tired, rather it’s a sign of your mental exhaustion. It needs to be exercised regularly just as you need regular exercise for your muscle. 

According to most psychological scientists, willpower can be defined as:

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
  • A limited resource capable of being depleted.

Many people have a myth that if they want they can be fully in control of their lives just by depending on the will power. However, that is not the case. In 2011, 27 percent of Stress in America survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change. Most of them thought that will power is a learnt tool, and therefore, were not wrong. Lack of willpower isn’t the only reason you might fail to reach your goals. Baumeister describes three necessary components for achieving objectives: First, he says, you need to establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal. Second, you need to monitor your behavior toward that goal. The third component is willpower. Whether your goal is to lose weight, study more, or spend less time on Facebook, willpower is a critical step to achieving that outcome; but however, it’s not the only component.