Is willpower limited?

The words “resilience”, “perseverance” and “grit” are used interchangeably in modern education. Is is justified? Should we train and manage our willpower? This is a common subject in our blog. For today’s references check here, here, here, here, here and here.

Vocabulary issue: resilience vs perseverance vs grit

There are small differences between these terms, even though we quite often do not differentiate. Let us start with resilience. Resilience is our ability to face failures, disappointments, bad news… It is very important when we are handling risky endeavors, looking for our lucky break.

Resilience seems to be defined fairly narrowly as the ability to bounce back after adversity or disappointment; being able to manage and adapt to sources of stress or adversity

When we are handling low-risk tedious stuff we need a very different skill, associated with commitment e.g. perseverance.

Perseverance tends to be associated with a steadfastness on mastering skills or completing a task; having a commitment to learning.

Sometimes we need to work hard without seeing any evident reward, hoping for a worthy pay-off in the long run. This deferred gratification is called grit.

Grit is a more recent import, much researched by Angela Duckworth, and is defined as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long-term goals. It is associated with self-control and deferring short-term gratification.

You can actually get your grit evaluated here. My personal score is 3.6 out of 5.0, which is above 50%.

It is clear that resilience, perseverance, and grit are associated with some sort of inner strength, ability to handle difficult challenges. To execute sufficient level of self-control we need some sort of inner resources: energy, attention, and mostly willpower.

Is willpower limited?

There are experiments showing that at any given time the amount of our willpower is limited and it can be depleted by performing various tasks associated with self-control:

Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse. Some of the earliest evidence of this effect came from the lab of Roy Baumeister. In one early study, he brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some subjects were asked to sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Afterward, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people who ate radishes (and resisted the enticing cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average. Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations.

Fortunately, just by eating an additional chocolate and getting gratification before the puzzle this effect could be negated. The willpower can be trained. If we need to exercise self-control it gets easier over time.

Brain stimulation to regain willpower

Chocolate is not the only way to stimulate willpower. Good food, good sleep, meditation replenish the willpower. Social support, written commitment, diary, frequent feedback and some other methods reduce the willpower depletion when we perform tasks. There are preliminary indications that medicine and inductive current stimulation of specific brain areas (typically associated with dopamine cycle) can also replenish the willpower.

Wellbeing is the dominant way to replenish the willpower. Since willpower is a critical resource, it is useful to manage our wellbeing.

Wellbeing management

There is no one thing responsible for wellbeing, but a complex of effects associated with good and bad stress can influence how we feel.

  • The spillover of stress between work and home can be measured and can generate overall willpower depletion.
  • Bad financial situation or social status can influence wellbeing and ability to activate self-control.
  • People who experience personal crisis see a strong degradation of their willpower, often to the point where they lose the will to live.
  • Different cultures require different levels of control from their members and provide different ways to “ventilate”.
  • It is easier to activate inner strength when surrounded by people and objects with values we love.
  • Sense of purpose is very important for gathering inner resources.
  • Wellbeing and happiness are not the same. Pleasure is not necessarily good for our willpower.

One of the simple measures for well-being is personal health. People with a good immune system generally score high on well-being scale.

Belief systems

The willpower strongly echoes one’s belief system. If you believe your willpower is limited, it will be. If you believe you can train your willpower, you will be able to train it. If you are a religious person and you pray or see a miracle, your willpower will be replenished.

Great athletes often use guided visualization as a way to control their willpower. I will quote some tricks from here:

  • Constantly think positive thoughts, use positive self-talk, appreciate yourself for being able to face the challenges…
  • Reframe your body signals. When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.
  • Create many small goals and celebrate achieving them.
  • Visualize how you complete the task. Use vivid and detailed visualization, utilize your senses.
  • Be a team player. Seek out for others, focus on their wellbeing instead of yourself.

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