Willpower Part II: How Your Willpower Is Depleted

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 8, 2012 · 84 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

In the first post of this three-part series, we offered a general outline of the nature of willpower, noting that it is a real mental energy which regulates your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance control by keeping in check desires and behaviors at odds with your values and long-term goals.

We then compared the battle between your willpower and those unwanted desires to Al Bundy and Theodore Roosevelt sitting on your shoulders in the roles of the classic angel and devil.

We ended by saying that the winner of that battle depended on the strength of TR relative to Al at a given moment. And today we will explore what affects that balance and just how your willpower is weakened, a fascinating subject in and of itself, and one that is a necessary precursor for understanding how to then conserve, strengthen, and harness this vital force.

Willpower: A Finite Resource

In addition to the TR/Bundy image, it is also helpful to think of your willpower like a muscle. All of these qualities of your muscles also apply to your willpower:

  • Your muscles become weak and flabby through disuse and a lack of exercise.
  • In order to build the strength of your muscles in the long-term, you must exhaust them in the short-term.
  • While you can build the strength of your muscles over time, on any given day when you walk into the gym, your muscles have a finite amount of strength–there’s an absolute max weight you can lift before your muscles reach failure.
  • If you exhaust your muscles with one exercise, you’ll have less strength and endurance on the next exercise because your muscles will be fatigued. Your muscles need time to recover before they can be fresh again for your next workout.
We’ll come back to the first two points in our final post. Today we’re going to concentrate on those last two, exploring the fact that on any given day you have a finite supply of willpower, and that when you use part of that supply for one thing, you have less of it for others.

How Is Willpower Depleted?

Your supply of willpower is depleted in two ways.

First, by exercising self-control.

Every time you have a desire to do something that conflicts with accepted social norms or with your values and goals, and your willpower overrides that desire and keeps you on track, part of your willpower supply gets depleted. The stronger the desire and the harder it is to resist, the more of your willpower fuel is burned up in the struggle.

The need for self-control kicks in more times a day than you probably realize. In one study, participants were given beepers that randomly went off seven times a day and asked to record what they were experiencing when they heard the beep. Researchers found that at any given moment, 50% of the participants were feeling a desire right when the beeper went off–whether to eat, sleep, have sex, or surf the web–and another quarter of them had experienced a desire in the few minutes preceding the beep. All in all, the researchers found that on average people spend four hours a day resisting desires.

If that number seems high, think of all the desires you may have had in the last five minutes:

I want to eat that leftover pizza. But I’m not really hungry, I’m just bored. Bob just posted a ridiculous and false partisan article on Facebook. I really want to leave a comment telling him about all the errors in the piece, but that will just stir things up for no reason. I shouldn’t be on Facebook anyway, I need to get back to work. I really want to put my head down on the desk and take a nap….

The four hours you spend resisting desires each day doesn’t even include the second thing that saps your willpower: making decisions.

As with exercising your self-control, the harder the decision, the more your willpower supply gets drained. But even a back-to-back series of small and enjoyable decisions will eat up some of your willpower.

While simply shopping around and weighing different choices diminishes your willpower, it’s the moment when you lock in that choice and cast the die that gobbles it up the most. When you lock in one choice, you must reject other possibilities, and humans hate narrowing their options.

The diminishment of your willpower supply through the making of decisions and the exercise of self-control has been named “ego depletion” (for Freud’s term for the self) by foremost willpower expert, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.

Your Brain on Ego Depletion

So what’s going on in your brain when your willpower energy gets depleted?

When you’re suffering from ego depletion, your brain’s anterior cingulate cortex—the part of your brain that detects a mismatch between what you intended to do and what you’re actually doing—slows down. When your willpower tank is full, and you start getting off track, the ACC is quick to jump in with a, “Hey, hey, hey, what do you think you’re doing? Get your hand off that mouse and put your eyes back on the textbook. We have a final in 2 hours!” But when your willpower muscle is fatigued, your anterior cingulate cortex reacts with a delayed and muted alarm.  The more of your willpower that’s been depleted, the slower the ACC responds, and the more likely you are to give into whatever the next temptation is you’re hit with, especially if the temptations come back-to-back. Then you might get no alarm at all, no voice that says, “You really don’t want to do that.”

It’s as if when your willpower gets low, TR falls asleep on watch, and Al has the run of the place. You can also imagine it like those video games where your health meter declines as you get injured—but if you can run around for awhile without being hit again, the health meter starts to climb back up and replenish itself. Crouch behind something and recover and you’re gold, but get hit again before that breather and you’re a dead man.

The Effects and High Cost of Ego Depletion

What happens to you when TR falls asleep and Al takes the wheel? Two things. Both of them bad.

Not Enough Slices of the Pie to Go Around

The biggest effect of ego depletion is what we mentioned in the beginning when we compared willpower to a muscle–when your willpower gets used up on one task, decision, or goal, you have less it for working on other tasks, decisions, and goals. Basically, the more ego depletion you experience, the less willpower you have to control your thoughts, emotions, and actions. There’s only so much willpower pie to go around.

This can be seen in a study that was conducted with two groups of college students. Both groups fasted before being brought into the laboratory. At the lab, the students were taken into a room and sat at a table on top of which two platters of food had been placed—one filled with warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and the other with raw radishes.

One group was told they could eat all the cookies they wanted–the other that they could only nosh on the radishes. The researchers left the students alone in the room, but watched them secretly through a window. The cookie eaters happily enjoyed their repast. The radish-eaters, on the other hand, were seen valiantly trying to resist eating a cookie while glumly biting into the raw roots.

After their snack, both groups were given puzzles to work on that were actually impossible to solve (they were not told this). The students who had eaten the cookies worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes before giving up. But the radish-eaters threw in the towel after an average of only 8 minutes.

Why did the radish-eaters give up so quickly? They had already used up some of their willpower supply on resisting the cookies, and thus had less of it available for working on the puzzles.

Similar studies confirmed this result; once people use up their willpower on one self-control-requiring task, they struggle and do more poorly on the subsequent one.

This phenomenon is something you probably already intuitively understand and have experienced in your own life.

Take your college finals for example. As you focused your willpower energy on studying, you had less of it for other things, and your hygiene and diet went in the crapper. Wearing jeans and eating chicken breasts was replaced by donning pajama pants, scarfing pizza, and guzzling beer (researchers have found that as counterintuitive as it may sound—at least to those who haven’t been in college for awhile—drinking goes up during finals not down, because of ego depletion). You probably chalked those changes up to stress, but ego depletion is also playing a role—you simply don’t have enough willpower to keep all your impulses in check.

Or you may have noticed that on a day you had to make a lot of tough decisions at work, you found yourself short-tempered with your wife and kids when you got home. Because you had used up your willpower earlier in the day, it was harder to control your impulses later on.

In my own life I can track my state of ego depletion on whether or not I respond to negative feedback on the blog. Being a blogger is of course an awesome job, but one of its drawbacks is that you are constantly barraged with baseless criticism, petty complaints, and inane comments from people who miss the point of an article by such a wide margin, it makes you worried about the future of mankind. In the real world, it would be like having a constant stream of people march by your desk saying, “You’re doing that wrong.” “You misspelled that.” “You’re a idiot.” You’ll invariably feel a very strong urge to confront these critics on why they’re wrong or how they really, seriously need to get a life. But I’ve found that responding is a huge waste of time–the naysayer never changes his mind, which only raises your blood pressure further. So I’ve tried to make it a policy to never respond to pointless criticism, and am generally successful…except when I’m suffering ego depletion. A couple of months ago the launch of our new book fell on the same date we were moving into our first house, and since I was putting my willpower towards those and other important things, I found myself lashing out to any unfavorable comment. I just didn’t have enough willpower left to control that angry urge.

This is why you start smoking again when you get stressed. And why they put the candy by the checkout line in grocery stores; after making all those choices on what to buy, your willpower guard is down. This is why it makes sense that ascetic monks stay single and celibate as well; children are specially-patented willpower-sucking machines (“Do not throw crying baby out window, do not throw crying baby out window”) who would consume the willpower needed to wholly focus on one’s spirituality.

This is also one of the elements that makes rising out of poverty so difficult; the downtrodden have a ton of tough decisions to make every day, leaving them more prone to giving into short-term impulses, even if those choices conflict with their long-term goals.

Risk Aversion

In addition to making it more difficult for you to control your emotions, impulses, and behavior, ego depletion also makes you risk-averse in your decision-making. When your willpower starts running dry, you begin to default to the easiest, safest, status quo option, the one that least locks you into a set path, in order to avoid expending any more mental energy. Your brain gets tired and starts to seek the path of least resistance. You become what author John Tierney calls a “cognitive miser” and will focus on just one factor of a decision instead of looking at the whole picture…”Give me whatever one is cheapest.” “Whatever you think is best.” But these “whatever” decisions may not be in your best interest or in line with your long-term goals. It’s like being tired after a day of shopping for a big ticket item, and when the salesman presents you with the store’s suggested package, you sign off on it, even though it’s more expensive and includes features you don’t actually need.


The bottom line is this: Your willpower is a finite resource and when the tank runs dry, you become much more prone to making decisions that distance you from your goals, torpedo your progress as a man, and hurt other people in your life. But as with any force in the world, once you understand how it works, you can become the master of it and learn how to minimize its destructive potential and then strengthen, conserve, and harness the energy for your own purposes. And that is where we will turn next time.

Willpower Series:
The Force of Greatness
How Your Willpower is Depleted
How to Strengthen Your Willpower and 20 Ways to Conserve It


Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

 Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 84 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt January 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Great post! I’ve always thought that caving in, or having a lack of willpower, as something that needs to happen from time to time. It’s like eating junk food: you don’t want to eat it all the time. Just once in a while because that “break” is what needs to happen in order to keep your mind right.

2 James January 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Great follow up to Part 1, and I look forward to part 3.

Willpower is something I have thought about and discussed with people often, however I admit the idea that willpower depletion hurts those attempting to rise from poverty is a very interesting piece that I feel warrants further discussion on it’s own, especially after the finale of this series.

3 Gary Marshall January 8, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Wicked article. Keep up the good work Brett & Kate McKay

4 Matthew January 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm

You have no idea how much I needed to read something like this today. Definitely stuck home here, thanks for it!

5 Marcus Brotherton January 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Brett, this is hands down the coolest paragraph in the history of blogging …

…Being a blogger is of course an awesome job, but one of its drawbacks is that you are constantly barraged with baseless criticism, petty complaints, and inane comments from people who miss the point of an article by such a wide margin, it makes you worried about the future of mankind. In the real world, it would be like having a constant stream of people march by your desk saying, “You’re doing that wrong.” “You misspelled that.” “You’re a idiot.” You’ll invariably feel a very strong urge to confront these critics on why they’re wrong or how they really, seriously need to get a life. But I’ve found that responding is a huge waste of time–the naysayer never changes his mind, which only raises your blood pressure further. So I’ve tried to make it a policy to never respond to pointless criticism, and am generally successful…except when I’m suffering ego depletion.

6 Kurtopia January 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Great post, I can only say thank you for supplying us all with this great knowledge.

Keep up the good work! You’re making a difference in our lives for the better and we are very grateful for it.

7 Dan Smith January 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I’m in awe and frustrated by this article. I need part three pretty bad before I toss my New Year’s goals on weight loss and exercising, mostly the eating issue.

I have never thought about will-power as a finite resource. I had always just assumed I didn’t have enough. This is mind-blowing.

8 MT January 8, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Loved the line about the need to resist throwing the crying baby out the wondow. That unexpected bit of humor was much appreciated!

9 Adam A January 8, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Bring on the next article quick!!!!

10 Hector January 9, 2012 at 1:30 am

Excellent work!!

11 Monsterheadphones January 9, 2012 at 2:35 am

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12 Aaron January 9, 2012 at 2:51 am

Brilliant stuff, since your first article I’ve tried to exercise my will power and discovered the muscle is very weak and flabby.

Going to need to start pushing myself a bit more often.

13 edward January 9, 2012 at 4:02 am

Love this trilogy on Willpower. I’ve been lurking on your site for maybe 6 months. Gonna give you more positive feedback to help counteract the junkmail. Can’t wait to learn how to strengthen my willpower/get a bigger gastank.

14 Josh January 9, 2012 at 4:46 am

Brett and Kate,
Thank you for this website. It has been such a help to me. Your work is true gold. The fact that you are dedicating your time and energy to give wisdom and understanding is a great thing; an honourable profession. I wish you both the best!


Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. (Proverbs 3:13, 14 KJV)

15 Josh January 9, 2012 at 4:48 am

Brett and Kate,
Thank you for this website. It has been such a help to me. Your work is true gold. The fact that you are dedicating your time and energy to give wisdom and understanding is a great thing; an honourable profession. I wish you both the best!


Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. Proverbs 3:13, 14 KJV

16 Tyler January 9, 2012 at 6:07 am

Awesome article. This provided a lot of insight for me into a family situation that’s been bothering me for quite a while. I really can’t thank you enough.

17 Cal January 9, 2012 at 7:14 am

Brilliant as always.

And nevermind the haters. Haters gonna hate.

18 Cory January 9, 2012 at 8:08 am

I’m really liking this series on Willpower. As someone who has willpower problems, and who is making a serious effort to change that, I’m greatly anticipating the final piece. Thanks AoM, and keep up the good work!

19 Jeff January 9, 2012 at 8:21 am

It’s “You’re a(n) idiot,” not “You’re a idiot.” Completely kidding. This has been an incredible series from an already stellar blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to make the world a better place by making better men. I look forward to another year of great posts. Once again, thank you.

20 David Y January 9, 2012 at 8:22 am

Don’t be afraid to get outside help if you need it.

A few months ago, decided I needed to lose some weight. Started out reading a couple of books. One suggested a web site called “fitday” which helps you track what you eat, exercise, weight, etc. to help reach your goal.

Things were working well until the holidays(big surprise). Afterwords, got back to trying to eat better, but not the website help. Was not going as well as it could, so today it is back to using the “fitday” site.

And no, I don’t work for them.

21 Alex January 9, 2012 at 8:25 am

Excellent post. Very helpful!

22 Jerimee January 9, 2012 at 9:22 am

Brett and Kate,
I’ve been going through what has been the most difficult year of my life, and your wonderful blog has been my lifeline. I’m not out of the fog yet, but you’ve provided a bright beacon of hope. My sincerest thanks to you both.

23 Ty January 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

GREAT! One of the best I’ve read, i can’t wait for the next article. Let me make a long story short. As I grew up my dad instilled in me the saying “Think Before You Speak” he would stick post-it notes in my lunch box or write it on my bathroom mirror. If every one did this the world would be a better place. I didn’t start practicing this until my senior year of high school and it really helped. But even today 6 years later I still find my self struggling to complete the whole day thinking before I blurt out some stupid or worthless comment. In the mornings I always find my self concentrating on what I’m about to say and by the end of the day I just say things to say them. Anyway, maybe one day you can do a post on “think before you speak” I think that everyone could walk away with something from that blog.

Awesome Article AOM!

24 Brent January 9, 2012 at 9:51 am

This article has sparked some good conversation with my coworkers today. Some are doubtful and playing devil’s advocate at the idea that willpower is finite, but after explaining it with the solid reasoning and examples you gave I have them convinced. One question I have trouble answering is the difference between stress and ego depletion. Are they the same, or does stress simply expend willpower?

This kind of knowledge bolsters support for an idea fundamental in time management – doing the most important tasks first- which will encourage me to plan my day with the most willpower expending tasks first instead of procrastinating. I’ll only have less willpower later!

Thanks for the great piece. I share your website with friends and bought your book to support your vision here.

25 Chris Hamm January 9, 2012 at 10:05 am

Great follow-up article. Looking forward to pt. III. I’m curious, like other people seem to be, about what other outside influences affect willpower. In my case I deal with a lot of depression issues. One day will be okay and the next it’s like taking a shotgun to the “willpower tank” it’s as if there’s nothing there to even draw from. It’s not as though you don’t get the warning bell ringing “Danger! This is a poor decision” you just don’t care or don’t have the energy to fight it. Maybe I’m confusing willpower with motivation? Interesting stuff. Thanks Brett & Kate.

26 Shane January 9, 2012 at 10:18 am

Great article, thanks! I particularly liked the part about Risk Aversion. I’ve begun doing my writing and thinking primarily in the morning, before my brain gets all depleted. I find I am much more ambitious and clear headed before the day runs away from me.

27 Bryan January 9, 2012 at 10:36 am

I wrote a paper in grad school and in it referenced a study (that I, of course can’t locate now) that relates nicely to this. The study was an observational study of parole decisions in Israel. The researchers found that you were twice as likely to be granted parole if your case was heard before lunch than if it was heard after. It didn’t matter if you were Israeli or Palestinian or what the crime was, researchers found that after making tough decisions about who to parole all morning, parole boards didn’t have the energy to continue making the tough decisions later in the day. Instead of simply giving in to the requests however, they did the opposite. Like you mentioned in your discussion of risk aversion, they decided that the safest thing to do was to not grant parole this time and thereby not potentially release someone who shouldn’t be released onto the street.

28 Kamboozel January 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

Nicely done. As a coach, I often relay a similar message to my elite athletes who plateau in their progress and look at the whole of their lives to eliminate distractions that take up precious energy away from focus towards training & (just as important) recovery. We do breakdown their lives into a pie and slice off all the things that slice that pie (work, school, family, etc.) with the goal of minimizing the number of slices so that energy can be focused towards athletic improvement.

29 Jen January 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Great post :) I’ve had a lot of success lately considering my willpower as a finite resource.

For example, when it comes to exercising, I had a terrible track record. I would procrastinate putting my shoes on and driving to the gym, because I knew I had to put in a good challenging workout when I got there. I needed willpower to keep going when my muscles said no, to push a little harder even when I was ready to leave after 20 minutes.

I recently removed most of the willpower requirements from my routine, and am having wonderful results. It’s easy to convince myself to put on my shoes and drive to my bootcamp class, because I don’t need to save the willpower to motivate me during my workout. The instructor (and the peer pressure from fellow exercisers) provide all the motivation I need to get through a workout.

Ever since I started going to the bootcamp class I’ve gotten a much tougher workout than I would have on my own, without depleting my willpower!

30 Rich January 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm

The concept described is similar to another term called “decision fatigue” that I have read about. If you want to make best the best decisions about an important issue do it in the morning because you would not have been worn down by the many decisions you would have made by the afternoon and therefore more prone to making a hasty decision.

31 Peter January 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I think it is mandatory for me to share this link on the subject – generally it is quite the same, going deeper in some places, mentioning experiments, definitely also worth reading.

32 Jen January 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Here’s the study you were probably referring to about the parole board:

33 John January 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Well written piece. My willpower reserves are indeed a finite resource. Between the demands of family, work, diet, and physical fitness, the work load on myself can get pretty high. Removing some of the willpower requirments in my daily routine would go a long way to keeping my willpower reserves in the “green”. Bookmarked for study. Thanks again!

34 Josh January 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I really like the idea of will power being like a muscle that can be trained. A year ago I had very little will power in most aspects of my life (over sleeping, skipping the gym, eating junk), but I decided to quit smoking (made even harder given that I was working for a tobacco company at the time!).

I succeeded on the smoking front and now I feel like my own will power is so much stronger for it, all of the household jobs get done straight away, I’ve become an early riser (thanks Brett!), the gym is as much a part of my daily routine as eating dinner and I can easily forgo junk food even when it’s the easiest option.

Dig Deep AOM readers, you could really surprise yourselves!

35 dango January 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

two key things for me:
1- try to commit as many things as possible in life to being a habit. Habits are automatic and consume little willpower. If exercise, good eating, politeness, strong work ethic, dressing well, etc. are habitual, you can use your will power for the new challenges.
2- focus on one new habit at a time and give yourself a break in between.

36 Brett McKay January 9, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for the very kind comments, everyone! Every internet forum always as its trolls, but AoM is very privileged to have far more incredibly nice and intelligent readers than most.

@David Y-

Very true! One of the keys of conserving your willpower is increasing self-awareness through monitoring and “datifying” your life.


That’s a very good question, and one we thought about a lot when writing this post. I couldn’t find any research on the subject, and I think experts themselves haven’t quite teased out yet what the interplay between willpower and ego depletion and stress is yet. To me, stress is the feeling you get of having too much on your plate, and ego depletion is the reason you start getting off track in your behaviors.

Doing the hard stuff first and the easier stuff later each day, is another excellent willpower conservation tactic, by the way.


Another good question! Haven’t seen any research on the subject, but I would imagine depression has a complicated effect–it often seems to sap one’s desires to work towards any goals, and thus even the need for willpower to reach them.


The study on the Israeli judges is indeed an interesting one, and will be mentioned next time, as it relates not only to risk aversion, but the way in which willpower is fueled by glucose and why you shouldn’t make important decisions on an empty stomach.


Good comment! Another great example of how to conserve willpower.


That excellent NYT article was written by the authors of the book on which this series is based: “Willpower.” For those of you would like to go deeper into the subject and particularly the studies this advice is based on, I highly recommend picking up the book.


Spot on! Did you get a peek at next week’s post? :)

37 Nathan January 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Just found your site the other night. It has been a real blessing, keep up the good work. Hope that helps fill your tank!

38 John January 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I am a college student and I obviously had noticed the trends that occur around that ‘ego depletion’ stage, but never could put a definite term on it.

Great article. I will definitely be more conscious of it from now, maybe even keep track of it day to day. Looking forward to reading the next installment.

39 Jack January 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I too am a student at the moment and I’d like to thank you for writing this blog. Fantastic stuff. Really.

I’ve been a reader of Nerd Fitness for a long time and I think I was first pointed here by that site. I recently re-discovered it and have been trawling through the archives for the last week or so picking out things which I might find useful for my upcoming second term. This series may just be the most worthwhile set of posts I’ve yet seen on a blog. Can’t wait till part 3. Thanks again!

40 Adam Moore January 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I love how logical and clear this makes an intangible thing. Great read and looking foward to part three!

41 Curt January 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm

You’re doing it wrong

and you misspelled…misspelled .

Nice article! I look forward to the next installment.

42 Victor Quesada January 9, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Dear Brett,

I love these posts, and it helps make me more aware of how my willpower may be lower after a tough day. I just may buy the book you are citing as a reference.

43 Simon January 9, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Great stuff! Long time reader, first time commenter. I love how you are able to distill into words something so complex and intangible, looking forward to the next installment. Spot on!

44 Blog for Men January 9, 2012 at 10:07 pm

I heard a special on NPR regarding how willpower actually declines with exposure. Meaning…if there are cookies in the kitchen and you walk by them the first time there might be a 1% chance you eat them. However, the brains resistance declines each time. So the 2nd time, there might be a 5% chance, the 3rd time it goes to 20%, etc…Having something directly in front of you is the worst scenario.

45 Brian January 9, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Great post. I have a tough time building up my willpower and get stuck in ‘risk aversion’ mode. My girlfriend can attest to this – I end up leaving all the decisions to her! I’ve always thought that I was just really easy going, but perhaps I’m conserving mental energy. I’m looking forward to the third installment.

46 Justin January 9, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Thx again , Brent and Kate Mckay, for a great article. Also I wanted to say that I really enjoy the poetry selections in the manvotional book. Truly Inspirational.

47 LeeRit January 10, 2012 at 2:54 am

I completely agree. Willpower, like any other energy sources, is limited.

In addition, I’d want to raise a point that: to sustain one’s efforts, the best way is to rely fundamentally on ‘the power of want’, i.e., doing what you love, and along the way, using the power of will to keep one on track when encountering distraction or failure (but even then, the power of true desire also plays a very important role).

Thanks for yet another good article.

48 Kevin Daley January 10, 2012 at 4:07 am

Excellent! And very timely! Now I have a major deadline in 4 days and will be crunching until then, so hurry up with the next post :D.

49 Steven January 10, 2012 at 6:49 am

I so cannot wait for the last part to be released. I believe that this series will be very useful to me as one of my biggest problems is lacking willpower to do stuff or change things. Thanks in advance, Brett & Kate! :)

50 Tony January 10, 2012 at 7:20 am

Very good! In the last year, I spent a good amount of willpower in putting away a large portion of my weekly income for the future. However, when Christmas time arrived! :) I spent I lot of money on fun items for myself instead of putting it away as part of my long term goal. Guess my willpower got depleted and I went shopping crazy :) I better get back to it. Thanks for the article. Looking forward to the next part.

51 Howie January 10, 2012 at 8:46 am

Kudos to Kate and Brent for the most excellent and completely timely articles! Now I understand how it is that I’m intelligent but nowhere near achieving my life’s goals.

52 Doug January 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Another excellent article or set of articles. Thanks so much. It clarified some things that I feel I intuitively undertsood. It also help me better understand traditional practices such as why priests are celibant , why Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry (and in our history many soldiers were discouraged to do so). Marriage and children (at least in my case) is an incredible sink of willpower and energy. Maybe some men have it the opposite – and the wife/youngins are “sources” (good for them). And why do so many focus on “TIME management” ?! Time can not be managed. It’s an independent variable just marching along. Energy and willpower are what must be managed! Conventional “wisdom” just plain sucks. Anxiously awaiting part 3 to read more about how to manage my willpower. I wish I found this type of writing 20 years ago.

53 Chris January 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I read the source text too, great synopsis and great that this information is getting proliferated.

I do wonder about the college finals example though. I know in “Willpower” Baumeister and Tierney say the lack of willpower is why college students will eat junk food and forgo hygienic practices, but I wonder if it’s not because they LACK willpower but because they’re conserving willpower. I’m not going to take the time to cook a chicken breast, that involves time (and time is crucial during finals, so any time spent not studying can be a drain) so you go with the quickest option, with what’s available. Same with clothes. It’s not that you lack the willpower to wear an appropriate outfit and are thus given in to some impulse to wear sweat pants. It’s that sweatpants and sweatshirt take no thought. Do they match? It doesn’t matter. Society accepts both as “comfortable”. Which carries the connotation of “lazy”. But it’s not like you’re going to the library naked. You’re just going with the outfit and choices that deplete the least amount of willpower, and thus conserve the greatest amount of willpower. Plus, the unhealthy food options replenish glucose (the fuel of willpower) faster than a chicken breast would. Which is why people chain-eat terrible foods when they’re working that intensely. It’s like having a hole in the bucket that holds your willpower. If you take the time to go home and cook the chicken breast, the bucket will drain completely and not replenish fast enough. So you fill it with murky water that somehow tastes pretty good even though its malarial (so to speak).

54 Michael Hardesty January 10, 2012 at 1:49 pm

More psychobabble scam. There is NO way to measure willpower. The authors are under the scientistic delusion that all fields of knowledge can be measured like a lab in physics and thus quantified. We know little about the brain, mind is a human term that is very elastic and there’s probably more that we don’t know about it than we do. I’m not postulating a Kantian noumenal world of the unknowable because how would anyone know that something is unknowable ?
But it is safe to say that much is unknown, perhaps a great deal more than is known.
But Americans are suckers for every new psych fad that comes down the pike.
I would suggest doing the hard work of studying philosophy and realizing that psychology is still in a primitive state.
By the way, why emulate that statist, warmongering All American Sissy TR ?

55 Jake January 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm


a = willpower
b = stress
Ego depletion is (a = a – b)

In addition to something that Marcus Brotherton said in his response, that part of the article is what helps let people know that other men are, in fact, real men. Complete with flaws, nuances and the like. Now people know that you are not unattainable; you’re getting there instead of having been there, which is worthy of revere is any man’s book.

56 MD January 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Then the greatest person to accomplish this Ego Depletion was Jesus Christ, who fasted for 40 days & 40 nights yet still did not fall into the trap Satan had planned….turn these rocks into bread which he could have done but was completely obedient to His father….after all this, Victory came

57 Jesse January 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Great stuff and just in time, my kids are close to getting the best of me and between holding off binge eating, keeping up with my workout and not biting my nails, now it makes sense why it can be so difficult to balance everything!

58 Deckard January 10, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Great Article,

looking forward for the continuation. I liked “Al Bundy vs T.R.” (or Dim vs Dash).

Measuring willpower? My problem is to develop it and stick with it. I lost a few years ago 48 Pounds within a few months… I felt the power… now i gained a lot fat back. But getting rid of it? I know what to do… but I feel as weak as everyone else…

my father is a self-made entrepreneur who made the whole “dishwasher to boss” thing you can always read about only by his willpower…

I dont know… I think if you want to have the willpower to withstand the things your “AL Bundy” likes, you have to make it one of your core values to resist to it… but that is easy to say and still hard to be done…

59 Matt Reeder January 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Great post! Just what I needed after successfully losing 20 lbs last summer, but putting 5 back on during the fall and holidays (when my wife had some really demanding rotations in her medical residency and I basically spent every minute of my free time taking care of my twin toddlers). I’ve got 25 or so more pounds to lose before I hit my final goal, and I probably need to knock it out before we relocate at the end of her residency later this year and have our life turned on its head again…

Time to get back to my diet… looking forward to post #3!

p.s. I usually spend my time cursing whomever thought it would be a wise idea to give a crying baby an amplifier, and I’m sure all you fathers who have had to suffer the distorted wails of a baby monitor agree. However, they do serve a useful function. Baby monitors can indeed be thrown out the window. Now that you feel a little better, you can tend to the baby.

60 Matthew January 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Great article Brett, can’t wait for the next post. You’ve helped me realise why I let a lot of things slide and don’t keep up with them. Like cleaning my house or more important things that would further my goals. Most of my willpower and energy gets drained through work and other worries that when it comes to the things I deem less important I just don’t care. Can’t wait to see how you suggest we maintain our willpower and keep the temptations at bay.

61 Ara Pehlivanian January 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Such a great series. Thanks for posting it. This information is life changing. I couldn’t wait for the third post so I bought the book!

62 Heath January 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Thank you!! This answers so many questions. I can’t wait for part III!

63 Tom van der Veen January 11, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for your work! I’d been looking for a blog like this for a while!

64 Barbachano January 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Great post. To be honest, I’m lacking on willpower, so this comes great for me. Looking forward for Part III.

65 Mark Melendez January 11, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Great post, Brett as always.

This helps keep me aware of my choices and that by exercising self-control, I can increase my willpower. I know I’m lacking willpower in some areas and I will work on it. Never really was able to define it, but this article helps.

Also, one thing everyone should try is just keep the things you want/want to change or do in your awareness. A method, I learned awhile ago is:

Make a list of the things you want and write it down on a card or something small. Write on something, you can take with you and take out easily. Look at it 10-20 times a day. Here are some examples:
-Be more active (Exercise)
-Eat healthier
-Family/Relationships (make family/people a priority)
-Watch less television

And so on. By looking at the card, you keep these things in your awareness will make you think twice about your choices. This has been shown to be more effective than making a schedule or planning a routine because many people have busy lives and things come up and a lot of people end up feeling guilty about not sticking to their new diet or exercise plan and usually end up quitting it in the first two weeks. Think about it.

Thanks for the great article, looking forward to Part III. I’ve been recommending this website to people and with articles like this will continue to do so. My favorite site keep up the good work.

66 Mike D. January 12, 2012 at 1:27 am

Another great article Brett and Kate I really have been needing and enjoying this series.

67 Matthew January 12, 2012 at 6:44 am

Fantastic article! Definately life changing. I cannot wait for the next one!

68 Criss January 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

Great article! Looking forward to the next part!

69 phil January 12, 2012 at 10:44 am

Really great post! I can`t wait for the next one! :)

70 Benjamin January 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

Fascinating post. I am going to take a look at that study when I get a chance to research it. I think, scientifically, there were other factors at work behind the reason that the “radish eaters” gave up on the problem so quickly besides will power depletion. They may have experienced feelings of punishment directed towards the researchers and project after having to eat radishes instead of of cookies. This resentment may have caused a decrease of interest in performing the study. There is no doubt, however, that willpower depletion played some role in their quitting. I am looking forward to the next posts in this series, particularly in regards to how promise of future rewards effect one’s immediate willpower supply (for ex: if I go to the gym all week, I’m going to have a huge burger this weekend). Again, great post.

71 brandon January 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Great article! Can’t wait to hear how to increase and recharge your willpower.

72 Larry January 13, 2012 at 12:34 am

I’ve been reading the articles on here for a couple months now and this is one of my favorite sites, just about every day when I jump on my laptop I check my email, facebook and AoM!

73 Maurice A. January 13, 2012 at 2:13 am

This came at the perfect moment. I just started another semester after a 3 weeks break. I have exhausted myself to get the grades I wanted the previous semester and it was not an easy task considering the fact that I am double majoring with a minor and have two part-time jobs. So I did not do A SINGLE THING over the break even though I had many things planned out. I am struggling to put together a calendar for this semester as I write.

If I can control my willpower, it will change my life for the better and i will finally be able to reach the superhuman status. I cannot wait until your next article. This is an awesome blog. Keep it up.

- Sorry for the English. I am not a native speaker.


74 Will January 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm

One of the ways that I’ve successfully dropped drinking soda (which is increasingly indefensible as a dietary component) is a willpower hack: anytime I want a soda, I drink a glass of water. And if I still want one after, I’ll have one, guilt-free. It sounds like nothing, but it drastically cuts down on the amount of soda I drink (I haven’t had one in weeks), and it doesn’t *hurt* the same way relying strictly on self-discipline does. And I’m not a monk, right? If a Mountain Dew would make me happy, you only live once.

75 Jamie January 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm
76 Suraj January 16, 2012 at 3:04 am

Fabulous article..I am reading all the willpower articles in one go. This is really enriching. I am starting to learn to look at my “ego depletion” situations in a different way now.

77 Best Mens Ties January 16, 2012 at 5:45 am

The best advice to depleting willpower then would be to organize our lives as much as possible to do those things we do desire to do… it is a hard work though!

78 Matthew A. January 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Pieces like this are some of my favorite works on this site. And the internet. Keep up the great work.

79 rob January 18, 2012 at 8:33 am

Nice article. I have read the book, its a must read.

80 Robert Sodervick January 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Accept the challenges, so that you may feel the thrill of victory!

81 Greg July 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm

“Similar studies confirmed this result; once people use up their willpower on one self-control-requiring task, they struggle and do more poorly on the subsequent one.”

You might want to reference one of these other studies instead, because the cookies and radishes version is very badly designed. Glucose levels in the bloodstream is an obvious confound with willpower in explaining the results of the puzzle task. You’re more likely to stay focused on a task if you eat some food immediately before, regardless of what’s happening with your willpower.

82 Charles November 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Great post and series. I’ve felt kind of lost and uprooted this last month and couldn’t put my finger on why. After reading this post, I realized it was because I had indulged to great excess over the summer through all the good weather and BBQs and parties and allowed my willpower muscle to get weak. I just did and did and never told myself no. Thanks for opening up these eyes. Cue the willpower.

83 Shannon -jj Behrens November 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm

I really enjoyed reading this, and it really struck home for me. My work is incredibly mentally taxing, and I study two hours a day on the train. On weekdays, I have no patience with my 7 kids, but all weekend long, I’m super dad. Now I have a better grasp of why weeknights are so tough, and why I can be patient with one ill behaving kid, but then lose my temper with another who isn’t behaving nearly as badly. Thanks!

84 south-guy November 18, 2013 at 11:35 am

It’s a really good and useful post series!

Just as a side note, I’ve an exam in the university in 4 hours, and when read this, feels like the TR on my shoulder ;-)

“Hey, hey, hey, what do you think you’re doing? Get your hand off that mouse and put your eyes back on the textbook. We have a final in 2 hours!”

Thank you!

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