willpower is not finite but marshmallows are


Yesterday I attended an excellent lecture on self-discipline. One of the best takeaways was the lecturer talking about how to best allocate your energy. “There are only two things in this world you can control,” he said. “Your thoughts, and your actions. If you’re spending any time and energy trying to control anything else, you’re wasting your time.

Of course, like me you’re probably saying “Wait. Controlling thoughts? It’s not that simple…” and I’m sure Kevin would agree – he only had an hour or so to cover a lot of stuff, and “Thought Control” would probably have been a whole other lecture. I was very relieved, however, to note that he did not fall into the popular concept of “Willpower as Fuel”. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s based on research that made it seem that people who are asked to make lots of decisions reached a point where they couldn’t make decisions as well – especially decisions regarding self discipline.

Problem is, there’s other research from Zurich and Stanford that implies the opposite. In fact:

The researchers found that having the students think about willpower as fueled by challenge – they exposed them to a series of statements like “it is energizing to be fully absorbed with a demanding mental task” – was enough to help boost their performance… In other words, how we think about willpower seems highly suggestible, which then affects our performance.

Got that? It’s all in the attitude.

And Then There’s the Marshmallows

One of the arguments supporting the “willpower is finite” concept is an equally-famous experiment about marshmallows. I’ve written about it before, but I think it bears repeating in case you’re one of those few people who haven’t read every word I write: environment seems to have more to do with your self-discipline as much as any innate ability or “storehouse.”

Impressive. SCIENCE!! (If anyone actually understands this graph, please email me an explanation?)
Impressive. SCIENCE!! (If anyone actually understands this graph, please email me an explanation?)

The follow-up study that kind of exploded the marshmallow put kids in similar situation – “here’s a marshmallow, if you can wait 15 minutes we’ll give you two” – but with a twist. The kids are either given similar situations where waiting gave rewards (“If you hold off on using this sticker, I’ll bring you lots of more stickers!”) or where waiting ended up proving fruitless (“Sorry, the previous group used up all the stickers.”).

It wasn’t just a few kids, either. Nor was it just a little bit of a difference. The results blew the researcher’s expectations out of the water. It turns out that the way your environment has taught you to expect patience to be rewarded has much more to do with how willing you are to be patient.

Which makes sense, frankly – if the evidence is that you only get what you want when you take it, and take it now, it makes sense to carpe that diem rather than wait. “Fool me once,” as a former President once attempted to say.

It Comes Back to Nurture

Here’s the takeaway: if it’s easy to influence how we feel about willpower, and our environment tends to exert influence on how we exert that willpower (after all, the decision to eat the marshmallow is an expression of will as well) then why don’t we spend more time making sure that our environment gives us the edge? What would that kind of a work space or living space look like?

Some would say it would have a lot of motivational posters or affirmations. I’m honestly not a big fan of that – affirmations don’t really do it for me, and I’ve laughed at too many de-motivational posters for them to work.

Talismans, though, do work. I have, in easy eyesight of my computer as a write, a sword, a guitar, some Japanese calligraphy, an intricate pressed paper artwork, and my VA volunteer badge hanging up. These remind me of the qualities I aspire to – integrity, strength, creativity, complexity, service – in a physical, visceral way. When I’m not here at my desk, it’s often a leather key fob that a friend gave me after my work at a particular event that reminds me that I am strong enough to do what needs doing, and even what I want to do.

How does your environment shape your view of willpower? Are you making it easier or harder to get things done? It might be worth a look around to see.

1 thought on “willpower is not finite but marshmallows are”

  1. Gray,

    I stumbled upon this post while researching self-discipline and willpower for my blog on achieving financial independence. I noticed you were looking for an explanation of the graph. I understand it and am happy to provide an explanation if your still looking for one.

    Best Regards,

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