Willpower Is A Limited Resource. Use It Wisely.

Willpower Depletion

Did you know that willpower is a limited resource?

It’s true.

According to this article from the American Psychological Association, willpower is defined as:

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
  • A limited resource capable of being depleted.

If you’ve ever tried to make a significant change, or multiple significant changes, and found yourself coming up short, you’ve likely exhausted your willpower.

How Is Willpower Limited?

The phenomenon of willpower being limited is called “willpower depletion”, and it’s well known in the scientific community. Drawing on your willpower for one thing will deplete your ability to exercise willpower in another area of life.

Why? A few reasons. Apparently, using willpower uses your brain power, and depletes your blood sugar (interesting stuff!). And also interestingly, people who exercise willpower for something with an external motivation – for example, eating healthy because a doctor told you to – are more depleted than those that use willpower for their own internal goals and desires. And if you believe willpower is limited, you’ll be more likely to feel depleted after exercising willpower.

So if you didn’t think this before, and now you do because of this article, sorry about that.

Willpower depletion is an important concept to understand in your financial life.

Studies On Financial Behavior And Willpower

If you use willpower in one area of your life, you may be more likely to spend.

People living in poverty have to exercise a much greater amount of willpower and self-control when spending than do people living at a higher income level. Why is this? Because equivalent spending decisions that are easy at one income level can be extremely difficult at a lower one. Grocery shopping becomes a large exercise in self-control. A few impulse purchases that might be no big deal to one person, can take a large amount of self-control to resist at another.

Even at higher income levels, exercising self-control can cause you to make poor financial decisions. In an interesting study, the authors found that when participants had to use willpower, they were more impulsive and were willing to pay more for the same product.

Fascinating stuff, right? Let’s explore what this means to you.

Using Willpower And You

I’m sure people are unaware of the impact using willpower has on their purchasing habits. I bet if you asked the folks in the study cited above, they would laugh at the idea that exercising self-control made them more impulsive and willing to spend more. But it’s true. And now that you know this, you can use it to your advantage.

These studies mean that willpower is a precious resource that you should strategically deploy in certain areas where it’s necessary. And you should actively work to try and make it so decisions that at first may require enormous willpower, eventually require none. Then you can move on to using your willpower on another area of your life.

It also means you can give yourself a bit of a break. Maybe you find yourself wondering what’s wrong with you when you can’t do everything you want to do. Using sheer willpower will exhaust you, and is likely to make you either give up on what you’re doing or possibly start slipping in other areas of your life.

But now that you know this, you can do something about it.

Use It Wisely – And Make It Automatic

When you want to make a change in your life, really think about how you can make the change without exercising self-control. This should enable you to make more substantial changes than you might otherwise be able to. Why? Because then you can save your willpower for something else.

Lets say you want to start paying off debt. First you want to figure out which debt you want to pay off first, and how much you can put towards it. Then you can automate the debt payment so you don’t think about it. You won’t need to exercise any self-control.

Or you might want to start investing more. Same thing, if you automate it, you don’t have to exercise self control. If instead you tell yourself that you’ll save up and send anything left over at the end of the month, you’ll need to use more of your willpower. You’re less likely to be successful, and more likely to use up your willpower here, and be unable to use it elsewhere.

When it comes to saving money on bills, it’s much easier to negotiate down a recurring bill (a one time activity) than something you need to decide to spend every week or month (hello grocery shopping!).  Making decisions week, after week, after week can really wear you down. One way to hack this is to use a list. Sounds simple, but deciding to stick to your list cuts down on your decisions. You only have to make one firm one – only things on the list will be purchased. Then you can use that framework to be more successful.

If you want to change your financial life – planning, preparation, and setting yourself up for success in any way possible are all necessary. Taking into account willpower depletion, what it might mean to you, and how to avoid it can help you achieve your goals and dreams.

Why I’m Thinking About This

I mentioned last month that I’ve been working really hard to improve my – and my families – health. This means a lot of changes. Learning new recipes, changing old recipes, and finding time for activities. When you’re as busy as I am, finding the time to be more active and cook more has a direct impact on the rest of your life.

This is the issue with changing the way you eat, and your activity level. Overcoming prior bad habits, and learning new good ones, requires constant application of willpower.

Most days, I would rather sit on the couch curled up with a good book and a homemade sweet treat than go for a hike. Every time I go grocery shopping, I need to make the decision to stick to my list – but also to change what I buy. No more buying the same-old, family favorite brands! Eating is something we need to think about at least three times a day (more if you’re a snacker), and what activity you’re going to do needs to be thought of constantly as well.

During this time, I’ve found myself looking for ways to reduce the number of decisions I have to make. That’s why meal planning has been such a savior to us – we only have to make decisions once a week. Then, for the rest of the week, we just need to cook (or assemble, or defrost) what’s on the plan. I also decided to take at least 10,000 steps a day just once, and then I just need to do it every day. I’ve found this works better than trying to make separate decisions on a different activity to do, which can cause analysis paralysis.

I Want To Hear From You!

Have you ever noticed your willpower waning – or had a time you were exercising a lot of self-control in one area but slipped in another? Any hacks or suggestions to offer to your fellow readers? Let me know in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Willpower Is A Limited Resource. Use It Wisely.”

  1. Great post! I never thought about it as a limited resource but I guess it makes sense when I picture certain scenarios. For instance even though I’m only working 20 hours a week at my W2 job, I’m still exposed to tons of junk food as most of my coworkers are unhealthy and bring in donuts and constant flood of baked goods. I appreciate their generosity, and I do love that stuff of course like most other people :-). I find myself very good at resisting it for the most part, but every once in a while I break down. Some of it looks so darn delicious I sometimes have to take a piece like everybody else. My brain sometimes gets tired of resisting.

    1. I know that feeling-I have one coworker that constantly keeps huge bowls of candy at her desk. I’ve had issues with that in the past, where I just break down and have some. Now I make it a point to not walk past her desk, so I have no idea if there’s candy there or not. 😃

  2. Hmm, something to chew on. I never thought about willpower as a limited resource so much as a synergistic resource. If you can demonstrate willpower in one thing, it becomes easier to demonstrate willpower in another.

    For example, I find that having the willpower to control my eating to stay at a steady weight has helped give me the willpower to keep on playing tennis and exercising several times a week. It’s easier because I don’t carry as much weight.

    Getting up by 6am every morning to do work before going to work when I was working, and now doing work before my boy and wife wake up gives me the discipline to take care of him for 4-6 hours during the day. It’s easier being a dad because I don’t have to worry as much about getting work done.

    It feels like willpower is scaleable, don’t you think? And if you can exercise willpower, it will grow. Why give up, when you can keep on going.


    1. I’m not sure that it can grow like that-but I do think that you can build off habits so they consume less of your willpower. In your example, I’m sure someone who is at a steady weight but at 40 something has never exercised a day in their life has to use just as much willpower to change their habits as someone who is overweight. It might be physically easier for them, but not easier in terms of forcing themselves to change.

      But if you do something for a while and master it, I would think you’re actually consuming very little willpower to continue doing that thing. It becomes more of an automatic, default choice. For an example here, I think about my shopping habits. I automatically shop at consignment shops for my clothes, and it consumes zero willpower for me to not shop at expensive stores. So in my case, I can use that extra willpower to save money elsewhere.

      It may be like a muscle, where the more you exercise it the more it will strengthen over time. I honestly don’t know, but I did find it interesting that it appears to be limited at any given point in time. Knowing that, you can set yourself up better for success.

      Not to say to give up, of course. Or to use this as an excuse. I think this knowledge is best to ensure you’re doing what you can to make your change the automatic default in as short a time as possible.

      1. There is an easy to read book that explains this quite well called Mini Habits by Stephen Guise and yes I would agree with CMO in that exercising or waking up early in morning becomes easier over time because you’ve formed new habits, not necessarily because your willpower has expanded. Habits utilize much less brain power or energy than will. Easier said than done but we should strive to form habits that we want to keep rather than relying on will power.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that willpower is a limited resource. That is why it is important to have cheat days in terms of dieting etc. You have to give small periodic rewards/breaks otherwise you end up doing more harm than good when you finally snap and go on a huge binge.

    Same thing applies to finance. If you scrimp and save constantly without taking a small cheat here or there, you are likely to lose your willpower and then make a bad decision.

  4. Never thought of it that way but I did notice that sometimes when I have to use extra willpower in one area , I may let things go a little in another.
    I am also trying to change some of my habits for eating and it is hard! And trying to do the 10,000 steps per day when the weather is crappy and you have a bad day is not always easy. But it is one of my goals!
    Using my Fitbit to enter my food intake while taking into account my level of exercise has been helping a bit. At least to know how much more I can eat!

  5. This is such a great topic for so many reasons. Charles Duhigg speaks about this in his book The Power of Habit. Also, Jocko Willink has a few great commentaries on creating habits in order to not make decisions (willpower) and thus not have decision fatigue. It all revolves around creating routines and habits so that you just “do” instead of “decide”.

    Pretty neat stuff that is so applicable to the changes you (and all of us) are trying to make!

  6. I have an interesting relationship with willpower, I have a fair bit. But some things are habit, and not bringing food into the house, some is knowing I feel crummy if I eat certain things makes it easier to decline while out / at work.
    Shopping decisions, either Christmas gifts, or even the grocery store sure can be overwhelming. I got to a point over the summer where I said to myself, you have the money, if you want the red onion ($0.20 more) than the white, go for it!
    My mom gets me a box of fancy candy for Christmas and I can have just one or two pieces, because for me making it last is the goal. I know other people who figure I’ll eat it all, why drag it out? *shrug*
    It definitely takes work and will power to change. I’m proud of you for doing what you are doing. Know that it gets easier as it becomes habit. 🙂

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