By: Elizabeth Anderson
No one ever argues against the concept of willpower: it’s a great tool to have in your shed. Wise self-regulation is key to many social and interpersonal relationships, keeps us out of trouble, and can determine how well we do at reaching long-term goals.
Willpower is the ability to accept sacrifice now in exchange for future benefits. We forego today’s pleasure to achieve a greater future good. It can be seen as the ability to persist in our resolutions and to do what we judge as best, despite temptations to do otherwise. When willpower breaks down, disaster can result. Addiction to drugs or alcohol has long been viewed as the result of a lack of willpower. But does this make sense? Surely, once substance use is destroying someone’s life, that person can simply ramp up their willpower to stop?
Is willpower endless?
Research has shown that willpower is a limited resource. Like a muscle that can be temporarily fatigued with use, willpower can be strengthened only through repeated use. When we apply willpower in a given situation, our ability to apply it again – even if it is in unrelated circumstances – is temporarily reduced. This may be because of the amount of energy that willpower consumes in the brain.
The brain is an expensive organ to operate. Even though it weighs a mere 3.3 lbs. and comprises only two percent of our body mass, it consumes 25 percent of our body’s energy. It requires glucose as its energy source – nothing else.
Physiological effects of willpower
Research has demonstrated that willpower burns large quantities of glucose, and willpower failures are more likely when glucose levels are low. Low blood sugar is often blamed as a factor in various self-control problems such as emotional outbursts, aggressive behavior, impulsiveness, poor stress-coping behavior, and difficulty staying on task. Fatigue also slows thinking and makes people more vulnerable to bad decision-making. Good nutrition and proper sleep, therefore, are important for self-control.
Further research has revealed that willpower is greatly enhanced by believing in our ability to self-regulate. Psychologists refer to this belief in our ability to complete a difficult task as “self-efficacy”’ which equates to task-specific confidence. Self-efficacy beliefs are a potent determinant of task completion success. If we doubt our ability to accomplish a task, our efforts will be lacking and the negative self-efficacy belief may well become a self-fulfilling fail-prophecy. Why exert yourself to accomplish something when you don’t believe you’re capable?
The human brain has a single supply of willpower so decisions made relatively close to each other can result in willpower fatigue and vulnerability to impaired decision-making (psychologists refer to this as “decision-fatigue”. When people experience decision-fatigue, they’re especially vulnerable, which is why marketers and salespeople often bombard people with information and decisions while trying to make a sale. The good news is that building self-control in one area of life can increase it in other areas. We become better at self-control when we practice it and take an organized and consistent approach to life and decision-making. Good habits and routines make it all easier.
It’s important to remember, too, that willpower works better for avoiding temptation than it does for getting through the temptation emergencies that sometimes crop up unexpectedly. We’re far more likely to make good goal-focused decisions and avoid temptations if we remove ourselves from a bad (i.e. hugely tempting) situation as soon as we recognize it.
On the whole, firefighters tend to be focused and goal-directed – the kind of people who benefit from knowing how willpower works and how applying it to their daily lives can help them reach the toughest goals.
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