Conserve Your Willpower: It Runs Out

Ever wonder why your resolve to hit the gym weakens after you’ve slogged through a soul-sapping day at work? It’s because willpower isn’t just some storybook concept; it’s a measurable form of mental energy that runs out as you use it, much like the gas in your car.

Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, calls this “ego depletion,” and he proved its existence by sitting students next to a plate of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. Some were allowed to snack away, others ordered to abstain. Afterward, both groups were asked to complete difficult puzzles. The students who’d been forced to resist the cookies had so depleted their reserves of self-control that when faced with this new task, they quickly threw in the towel. The cookie eaters, on the other hand, had conserved their willpower and worked on the puzzles longer.

But there are ways to wield what scientists know about willpower to our advantage. Since it’s a finite resource, don’t spread yourself thin: Make one resolution rather than many. And if you manage to stick with it by, say, not smoking for a week, give your willpower a rest by indulging in a nice dinner. Another tactic is to outsource self-control. Get a gym buddy. Use to regulate your spending or to avoid distracting websites.

As John Tierney, coauthor with Baumeister of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength explains, “People with the best self-control aren’t the ones who use it all day long. They’re people who structure their lives so they conserve it.” That way, you’ll be able to stockpile vast reserves for when you really need it.

Judy Dunn, Wired Magazine

The Flip Side

Most people are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, but many people miss the flip side. While someone might be weak on confrontation, the flip side is that they are probably good at finding creative ways to get along with others and create harmony. Someone might be prone to make rash decisions and yet that same quality makes them ideal in times of emergency when quick action is critical. On the other hand, some people who are slow to act may have the upside that they are through and reliable. When you find your own or someone else's weaknesses, don't forget the up side.

Stephen Goforth

Staying Power

Life is tumultuous – an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory. We need a hardbitten morale that enables us to face these truths and still strive with every ounce of our energy to prevail.

But there is no possibility of sustaining ourselves in that effort if our values and beliefs are so weakened that nothing seems worth the struggle. First and last, humans live by ideas that validate their striving, ideas that say it’s worth living and trying.

John Gardner