Understanding Willpower

When any of us stop to contemplate what we are (or are not) achieving by way of success in our lives - a popular pursuit at the end/ start of a calendar year - we are reminded that every one of us is blessed with the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet, some people are able to achieve great things in multiple areas of life, some others achieve great things in one area whilst living stunted lives in other aspects. And, the vast majority of people, in Thoreau's words are leading "lives of quiet desperation."

Scientific research (as well as common sense) have suggested that the biggest influences are self-control or sometimes referred to as agency - the ability and inclination to resist base urges and to take ownership for the decisions made. My own view is that any person who believes with full conviction that they're accountable for their own actions, exercising control over their own decisions and choices (whether they be good or bad ones, in their own long term interest, or not) will make more good decisions and have a greater sense of control and purpose over their life. They will see themselves more as actor and less as 'acted upon'.

As I've written in some past blog posts, Roy Baumeister and others have developed the concept related to willpower of 'ego depletion' which suggests that within a day we have a finite amount of willpower or decision making power and that, the more decisions we have to make in a day the greater the likelihood that we'll reach a point where it's all used up. This is often used to explain why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg choose to wear the same clothes every day for work (keeping their mental energies for things they consider more important and value adding). The idea that willpower runs out when drained suggests the reasons why our willpower can crumble under pressure and we find ourselves doing things that are not in our own best interests.

However, this year, we've seen the concept of ego depletion challenged. I wrote about this back in March;

Hold the Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fast Company published an article on the subject recently, suggesting that what the research now appears to be telling us is - if you think your willpower is a depleting asset, it will be. It's all in the mind, apparently. This has implications in many areas as there are a variety of topics on which others have built on to Baumeister's views and ideas. For example, I happen to be reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport at the current time. This book, published in january 2016 makes frequent reference to Baumeister's research and the implications for doing focused, high quality, meaningful work in a distracted world - especially for knowledge workers.
Fast Company - The Myth About Willpower is Holding Back Your Productivity

One of the questions that this challenge raised in my mind was whether it's all been a bit too convenient to want to believe that Baumeister was right. If I do something (or fail to do something) in a way that exhibits a deficit of willpower it's much more palatable to say that this was because of ego depletion. Without that, I have to acknowledge to at least some extent that this represents a failure of me. I can no longer put it down to something that "wasn't my fault." Such self-scathing critique doesn't sit comfortably with most people. It smacks too much of the self-help movement's "I am responsible" mantra that says that we must own up in the harshest terms to ourselves for every act or omission.

Productivity angst is probably one of the biggest issues of our current decade. The idea that everyone else is being more productive, more efficient, making better decisions and choices about how to extract value from time. the idea that others are capable of being fully wired and inter-connected with a vast online world whilst fully engaging in all the correct opportunities in the real physical world around them, whilst we run from pillar to post leaving vast to-do lists largely undone. FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps people believing that they have a duty to focus a bigger and bigger part of their time on achieving their goals (and you must have plenty of goals) and that 'down time' is for losers.

As a result, debates about the role of willpower, how to control it, have more of it etc. are far more than merely interesting academic debates. Baumeister, as highlighted in the Fast Company article, has questioned the scientific methodology of some of the more recent experiments. He and others continue to defend the concept of 'ego depletion' and I'm sure that in coming months we're going to see this fascinating debate evolve further.

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