Why you should ignore the scientific evidence on willpower

Willpower is a limited resource.

 

Lots of pop science books talk about the reasons why willpower is a limited resource, and why you are more likely to be able to stop taking caffeine if you aren’t already trying to go to the gym a lot. Or why stopping yourself from checking Facebook all day means that there is more chance of eating too much that night.

The problem was that after when I understood that I had only so much willpower to spend, my willpower fell apart. Suddenly I had an extra reason to self-sabotage:

  • ‘well you’ve got a stressful day of meetings ahead so I think I’ll want to conserve a bit of willpower for that – chocolate for breakfast then’
  • ‘I must have used up a lot of willpower focusing on work for so long, I’ll treat myself with an hour of TV-Tropes’

Before long lots of habits that had built up over years had fallen down. Why? Because I’d been given an excuse.

It was hard to work out what was the right thing to do. I hate the idea of ‘lying to keep people safe’ and I believe that empirical evidence is the thing that will drag humans closer and closer to civilization, but in this case, being given the science makes the situation much worse.

In the end the place I came to was this.

 

Yes, willpower is limited on any given day/week/ect. But we don’t know what our willpower is in advance, or even at the time. In fact, the only way that anyone can measure willpower is retrospectively “Wow, I didn’t know I had it in me to run all that way” or equally “it was like I just fell into that pile of chocolate, I have no idea what happened”, our minds are just too complex to be able to judge correctly.

So if we don’t know anything about our (massively random amounts of) willpower until after the event, then budgeting it is silly.  If you were given a magic credit card, that was paid off in full every night, and had the limit set to a random value every morning – how would you spend it? The only rational solution is to spend like to have all the money in the world, right up until the point where you don’t. And so the only rational approach to dealing with the idea that your willpower is maybe being depleted by a random amount is to act like you have all the willpower in the world, right up until you find out otherwise.

Because the though that says ‘well you’ve got a stressful day of meetings ahead so I think I’ll want to conserve a bit of willpower for that – chocolate for breakfast then’ is that same one that said ‘nothing wrong with a little bit of chocolate’ last week and ‘oh but it’s only a little bit’ the week before. It’s just a small part of your brain is always dedicated to finding excuses and you’ve got to make it stop.

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