The Psychology Of Never-Ending Willpower

It’s a busy day on campus. Students are rushing to and from classes, checking their notes hurriedly before sitting down for yet another test.

It’s finals week at Stanford and, despite the demand on students time and attention, 41 who’d been paid $10 stopped in at the psychology department to take a brief survey. What was asked? Questions like, “How many unhealthy snacks have you eaten recently?” and “How often did you watch TV instead of studying?”

This wasn’t the first time they were asked. These same students were monitored over the course of a whole academic term—times when they were bored, stressed, under pressure, relaxed, etc.

What the researchers were looking for was a discernible pattern for the students who seemed to have no problem sticking to their goals of healthy eating, studying, and other good habits. They wanted to study people with superhuman willpower.

And this wasn’t the only test they ran, either. Using completely different students at different times, they conducted three more studies to control for a number of possible variables.

What they learned goes against many decades of research, but their findings are fascinating. Turns out, students showing massive amounts of willpower despite high levels of stress did one thing differently than those who struggled.

And what they did can be replicated. You can train yourself to do it, too, and reap the rewards of limitless willpower. Want to know what it is and how to do it?

Imagination: How Your Beliefs Control Your Willpower

Ever had one of those days where getting even a little work done feels like pulling teeth? You get a little done, then you feel like you need a break. You walk around, look in the fridge, grab a glass of water—anything you can to buy some relaxation before going back to the task at hand.

By the end of the day, you got a little done, but you mostly slacked off. Now, compare that to a day when you had the same work to do but, somehow, managed to stay focused all day, avoid distractions, and finish everything you needed to. It feels amazing!

You might think you’re at the mercy of your willpower—like it comes and goes when it wants but, you know, mostly goes…

For ages, it’s been believed willpower is strong in the morning, but fades throughout the day. Lots of studies have shown that your willpower is limited and, if you use it up on one thing, it’s difficult to harness it on another. They call it ego depletion. So, the standard advice is to do things that need lots of willpower in the morning, and let yourself off the hook in the evening because, let’s face it, you don’t have a choice.

But maybe you actually do.

New and mounting research shows that what actually controls your ability to not eat that cupcake or get that tedious task done does depend on willpower depletion… but you get to decide how much willpower you have. And you can choose to have enough to last all day, every day.

Let’s go back to Stanford.

Over the course of their research they did a number of tests that split participants into two different groups: people who believed their willpower was limited, and people who believed their willpower was unlimited—that they had as much as they wanted.

First, they asked people what they believed, and then had them do a number of easy and difficult tasks. When they measured performance, they found people who believed they could perfom well regardless how stressed or tired they were actually did do well. Not just well, but measurably better than people who thought their willpower was limited.

Crazy Science: You Can Be Tricked Into Limitless Willpower

But the researchers didn’t stop there.

Next, they lead a new set of participants through a study that included a survey with biased questions. One version of the survey used language designed to force you into the mindset that willpower is limited and that the more of it you use up, the worse you’ll do.

The other version did just the opposite. It used language designed to make you think willpower was limitless—that you could do well no matter how much of it you’d already used.

Then, they ran the participants through the same willpower intensive tasks, and crunched the numbers on the results. What did they find? The same thing! Regardless their original beliefs, participants who were “tricked” into believing that willpower is limitless performed better regardless how stressed or tired they were.

Just to check their findings, they did yet another test to control for variables that could cloud their results. Things like:

  1. Did people with a belief of limited willpower overuse it early on, leaving them depleted for other tasks? Nope!
  2. Do people who see willpower as unlimited not experience exhaustion when they use it? Also, nope!

What does this mean? It means that you can trick yourself into exerting great amounts of willpower all day every day regardless how much you have to use, and you can still make good decisions even when you’re exhausted.

How To Change Your Belief To Harness Never-Ending Willpower

So, how do you actually put this science to use in your own life?

  1. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight, but find yourself struggling to make good food or exercise choices when you’re tired.
  2. Maybe you want to start a business in your free time, but find yourself too tired at the end of the day to work on it.
  3. Maybe you’d like to learn an instrument, but you can only practice a little bit before you feel like giving up.

In any of these cases, the answer is to change your belief that your willpower is limited to the belief that it isn’t. Once you do that, it’s mostly clear sailing. But that may seem like no easy feat itself!

Rather than convince yourself to think differently, try this instead: Work to convince yourself to act differently.

Start with something small. Finish one small task, and then take on another without thinking about it. Set it up so it happens automatically. It’s easier to change your way of thinking after making small adjustments to your actions than it is to change your actions by making adjustments to your thinking.

Shift your beliefs about willpower the same way you would start a new habit—one small win at a time.

You don’t have to make a 180º change overnight. Just 1º each day will turn you completely around in six months. And that’s lightning fast considering most people set their beliefs early on and never change them.

Here’s to your progression towards limitless willpower. May it serve you well, and may you do everything you set your mind to. Three cheers for science!

What’s the first change you’re going to make?

Additional Sources:
Ego-Depletion: Is It All In Your Head?
Hat tip to James Clear for his work on identity based habits.