Is Willpower A Limited Resource?

What’s the difference between resisting something through willpower and simply removing the temptation altogether? For instance, is it better to keep your phone next to you while you work and resist the temptation to scroll through social media? Or is it better to just give the phone to a friend and ask them to keep it from you until you’ve finished?

Some might argue that it’s better to resist. That it’s beneficial to practice using your willpower so that it gets stronger, like training a muscle. And there’s some truth to this. Research does suggest that willpower can be improved through practice. But there’s a price. It turns out that the same mechanisms the brain uses for effort are also used for other functions like cognition. Here’s how it’s explained in the video above:

A famous experiment by Roy Baumeister and colleagues, had 67 participants who hadn’t eaten for at least three hours walk into a room filled with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. They sit down to a table with two bowls. One filled with warm, gooey chocolate-chip cookies, the other one filled with radishes.

Half of the people were told that they had to eat the radishes and couldn’t touch the cookies. Afterwards, they had the poor radish people and the lucky cookie people work on a mentally stressing puzzle. The puzzle was actually impossible. The point was to see how long people would try to do it.

The radish people gave up on the puzzle almost twice as fast. On average they quit more than 10 minutes faster than the cookie people.

It turns out, exercising willpower literally tires out your brain, leaving it less able to carry out other tasks. This doesn’t mean you should never rely on your willpower of course, but it makes a strong argument for being selective about when you do so.