Willpower, and the Importance of Taking a Break

Remember too that you can dampen your executive functions in many ways, like by staying up all night for a few days, or downing a few alcoholic beverages, or holding your tongue at a family gathering, or resisting the pleas of a child for the umpteenth time. Having an important job can lead to decision fatigue which may lead to ego depletion simply because big decisions require lots of energy, literally, and when you slump you go passive. A long day of dealing with bullshit often leads to an evening of no-decision television in which you don’t even feel like switching the channel to get Kim Kardashian’s face out of your television, or sitting and watching a censored Jurassic Park between commercials even though you own a copy of the movie five feet away. If so, no big deal, but if you find yourself in control of someone’s parole or air traffic, or you need to lose 200 pounds, that’s when it’s time to plan ahead.

I just read this terrific 5,000 word longread in You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney that discusses how you can lose willpower when your ego is depleted. Willpower: That thing you have so that you don’t buy everything you want just because you want it, or eat an entire pie because it’s sitting right there in front of you. Willpower: That thing that is preventing you from punching everyone in the face who annoys you.

The essay starts out with a study that broke my heart because I have way too much empathy for strangers. A team of psychologists invited a group of students to a meet-and-greet function where they were asked to introduce themselves to each other and chat each other up with questions like, “Where are you from?” and “What’s your major?” After hanging out for a little bit, the students were then asked to write down the names of the people they’d like to partner up with for the next activity. The researchers threw away the students’ choices without looking at them, and randomly put the students in two groups. They told one random group, “everyone chose you as someone they’d like to work with,” while they told the other random group, “We’re sorry, but nobody chose any of you as someone they’d like to work with.” (This is the part that broke my heart). The two groups were then asked to move on to the next activity, which was tasting and judging chocolate-chip cookies. As you might have guessed: The students who had their egos depleted after they were told that no one wanted to work with them ate twice as many cookies as the other group.

There are several other studies the essay uses as examples: One group was put in a room with radishes and cookies, and were told they could only eat radishes. Another group was told they could eat the cookies. Both groups were then asked to solve a puzzle that was secretly impossible to solve. The group that had their egos depleted from eating radishes gave up trying to solve the puzzle long before the group that ate the cookies did. Their willpower had been killed.

The common thread is this: The more your ego is being depleted, the less willpower you have in the future. This also includes resisting things you want but know are bad for you. Your ego gets depleted a little bit every time you say no to a slice of cake, even when you really want one. And this may cause you to have less willpower for other things in your life. So saying no to a slice of cake may actually lead you to to do things like buying a bag of clothes later.

The answer to this: It’s okay to say yes to a slice of cake every once in a while. As McRaney writes, “If you want the most control over your own mind so that you can alter your responses to the world instead of giving in and doing what comes naturally, stay fresh. Take breaks.”

Photo: Flickr/Scubadive67