September 25, 2009
Doing Tasks Depletes Willpower

Most of us have a finite supply of willpower.

HAMILTON, Ont. September 24, 2009—Have you ever sat down to work on a crossword puzzle only to find that afterwards you haven't the energy to exercise? Or have you come home from a rough day at the office with no energy to go for a run?

A new study, published today in Psychology and Health, reveals that if you use your willpower to do one task, it depletes you of the willpower to do an entirely different task.

Do some people not experience this depletion of willpower?

Regulating your emotions can deplete your willpower. So if someone is giving you a hard time and you are suppressing your desire to strangle them then you are depleting your will to exercise. Stay away from people who cause you to exert more effort regulating your emotions.

"Cognitive tasks, as well as emotional tasks such as regulating your emotions, can deplete your self-regulatory capacity to exercise," says Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, and lead author of the study.

Martin Ginis and her colleague Steven Bray used a Stroop test to deplete the self-regulatory capacity of volunteers in the study. (A Stroop test consists of words associated with colours but printed in a different colour. For example, "red" is printed in blue ink.) Subjects were asked to say the colour on the screen, trying to resist the temptation to blurt out the printed word instead of the colour itself.

"After we used this cognitive task to deplete participants' self-regulatory capacity, they didn't exercise as hard as participants who had not performed the task. The more people "dogged it" after the cognitive task, the more likely they were to skip their exercise sessions over the next 8 weeks. "You only have so much willpower."

Avoid situations that deplete your willpower unnecessarily. What situations or tasks deplete your willpower? Introspect and see if you can identify what does it to you and which depleters you can avoid.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 25 12:01 AM  Brain Performance

Brett Bellmore said at September 25, 2009 4:13 AM:

I wonder if this involves neurotransmitter exhaustion in a specific group of neurons? That seems a likely mechanism, and if it is, taking the right supplements might just help.

Brett_McS said at September 25, 2009 4:55 AM:

This sounds a bit like it could be a study out of Pirsig's Gumptionology. Personally, I have found that listening to talks and podcasts on my iPod has transformed tedious activities such as house work and exercise. If I don't have any 'gumption' stored up for the job I just turn on the iPod and treat the (exercise/work) routine as incidental to listening to a talk or an audio book. The job gets done and I'm entertained and/or educated at the same time.

Eric Johnson said at September 25, 2009 8:23 AM:

Yeah, I do that too, it rocks. Today there is no need to suffer boredom during menialities, nor do you need to suffer the mediocrity of even the best of mass broadcast media. You can hear the ambrosial strains of Milton and Shelley or the latest findings in cosmology while scrubbing your toilet. Do you know about It's a pretty huge collection of free recordings of off-copyright books made by volunteers.

I mean, instead of listening to audio text I'd love to become some kind of vipissana saint and make every single action I do into a worshipful savoring of existence, but I'm way too cranky. It's not gonna happen. Taking in endless amounts of fine audio text, on the other hand, is more in my nature.

Hard aerobic exercise augments my will, personally, rather than using it up. But other than that I agree with the general idea of will being a finite and common currency of many human activities.

Mthson said at September 25, 2009 9:33 AM:

It seems like willpower research should have a heightened priority. I find most people work at their jobs at 1/2 the speed they could be working if they were constantly highly motivated. Maybe 90% of people doesn't exercise and eat in the ways they'd like to. We live in an epidemic of deficient willpower.

Lono said at September 25, 2009 10:06 AM:


Do not think that is not by design!

"But I'll tell you what they don't want... they don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting #$*&! by a system that threw them overboard 30 f-ing years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers – people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly crappier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it."

- George Carlin


I too could hardly stand the unbearable bordem of being if it were not for audio text - so much of modern life is repetitive toil these days...

I thouroughly enjoy the wide variety of college lectures one can find online as well!

Allan said at September 25, 2009 10:27 AM:

I've been thru very rigorous military training that, by design, wore a person out mentally and physically. You'd be surprise how far you can push yourself.

I don't believe there is a finite supply of "willpower" in the body that needs to be recharged. It's the depth of your commitment. You can push yourself until the body has nothing left ... the mind may be willing, but the body isn't. At that point, it's not the lack of willpower but sheer exhaustion that stops a person.

WillThrift said at September 25, 2009 4:24 PM:

Allan, training can dramatically change how willpower is spent but once the body quits I believe you can still take mind-altering drugs like PCP to allow the brain to ignore the body's argument. I think this means the body is just one group of factors in deciding if you are willing to continue.

Brett_McS said at September 25, 2009 8:13 PM:

Allan, your comment is generally in line with the basic finding of this study which is that will power is like a muscle. Yes, it can be (temporarily) depleted of power through use, but, as you suggest, perhaps the size of the reserve can also be built up through training, just as for muscles.

David Govett said at September 25, 2009 10:51 PM:

Explains writer's block.

In said at September 26, 2009 10:51 AM:

"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."

I think motivation is more important than will power. People can do incredible things if they feel like or have an emotionally arousing enough reason for doing them (e.g. fearing death can motivate one to eat right exercise). Modern life can not only be toilsome, it can be uninspiring as well.

"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives."
-Tyler Durden

I too use audio to pass the drudgery of modern life (including driving). I would like to see more ways to eliminate such drudgery altogether. Automated bill payments is a start. Anyone see automated cooking/cleaning systems coming down the pike? Self cleaning materials? Automated home/vehicle maintenance? More robust long lasting materials/systems?

Mthson said at September 26, 2009 11:58 AM:

Re: "rigorous military training"

Thanks for making that point, Allen.... it makes me think sending kids to military schools is an under-utilized strategy. Humans get lazy if you let them (myself included).

Re: "No purpose or place. We have no Great War. ..."

Really? Regenerative medicine, neurotech, gene therapy, nanotech... I think we live in history's most interesting era yet. There's even the chance, whether it's large or small, of seeing SENS in our lifetime.

Regarding automation, I hire domestic staff for things like cleaning (once per month) and dropping off meals (once every 3rd day). I spend the saved time on extra hours at work, and everybody wins.

(For these kinds of things you can post on craigslist, asking candidates to send you their rates, and then ask respondents if they can do it for a lower rate. People need the work these days.)

In said at September 26, 2009 1:11 PM:


It all depends on how you look at it. I agree we live in interesting times. All I was trying to say is that I see a TON of unmotivated, uninspired people. Eating healthy, regulating emotions well, exercising, despite the benefits, just isn't very interesting or motivating to a lot of people. It is not a lack of will power, but a lack of will. I admit I don't have hard data, but I've heard several people (not just the author of Fight Club) talk about the lack of activist passion in post modern generations. It is commonly believed that people are more cynical than they used to be. Post-modernism is associated with a breakdown in the confidence in our core institutions, a questioning of all values and assumptions. I suspect people are more skeptical of "worthy" causes these days.

Thanks for the ideas. I have used services for various things including updating my resume. I was thinking more along the lines of something that could be common for everyone to utilize. There have always been servants, but technology that could eliminate or ameliorate such tasks could make us all freer.

matthew said at September 26, 2009 1:32 PM:

i work for a man with cerebral palsy. He can type and get around with his electric wheelchair but otherwise his movements are very restricted. I think a great experiment is to do the opposite:

Have people feel abnormally restricted in their "willpower" then remove the barrier and see how the perform!

totally unrelated:

need to get in contact with an independent movie company to make a film depecting the differences in life experience between people living in the past and today. closest equivalent would be people in said book.

Randall Parker said at September 26, 2009 5:50 PM:

Mthson, In,

Precisely because I have a limited amount of willpower I'm seriously thinking about getting a Roomba 530 vacuuming robot. Either that or a Roomba 560.

I've already automated a lot of bill paying. I am looking for more suggestions on how to automate more tasks. Got any ideas?

Mthson said at September 27, 2009 6:04 AM:

Randall, I like to batch some tasks, like putting my next several meals into meal-size pyrex storage containers that can be popped into a toaster oven from the refrigerator. I like to also put salads into normal meal-size plastic tupperware that are also ready to go (but don't need to be cooked).

I've also mentioned here in the past that grocery delivery services can be a great deal. Some grocery store chains have websites that make it pretty easy to just select items from your previously purchased items. (I use Safeway, which is a chain here in the west US.)

I find it requires the least willpower to exercise regularly if we can do it on-site. A home weight set, a Bowflex machine, or an apartment complex gym can be great. I really enjoy short exercises often, the more intense the better. 15 minutes every other day + protein powder can make us more muscular than 95% of our gender (male or female). I also recently leaned a mattress against a wall to use as a punching bag on work breaks. I felt like the bones in my upper body weren't getting enough (mild) impact shocks.

I'm looking to set up automatic remote computer backups. Anybody have recommendations? (It seems like not using such a system is reckless.) looks good.

Mthson said at September 27, 2009 6:23 AM:

I could see how fat cats wouldn't view it to be in their best interest for the masses to gain technology that increases motivation. That's all the more reason for us to prioritize it :)

Yes, technology to free us all from a life of drudgery is much preferable to domestic assistants.

Randall's been writing lately on Parapundit about the possibility that we'll have an oversupply of unskilled labor for a long time, with some portions of society even being unemployable in a society with next generation technology (better AI, etc.). I wonder if motivation-increasing technology and other cognitive improvements could help even out the distribution of ability and delay the point at which part of society becomes unemployable.

In said at September 27, 2009 7:22 AM:

Things I do to save time/energy/attention:

-Slow cooker is the most convenient way to cook paleo meals.
-Hard boil eggs instead of cooking, no cleanup
-other convenient healthy foods include nuts, fruit, veggies and hummus, yogurt, no doubt more
-slip on shoes
-keep hair short

I second Mthson's points about exercising on site and batching. I also find that it helps to have a daily/weekly routine, that actually seems to cut down on will power expenditure.

Randall Parker said at September 27, 2009 9:13 AM:


I batch prepare lunches. I even use a slow cooker to make food for several days.

Grocery delivery services: What do they cost?

I want to start using remote back-ups as well. Here's a list a friend recently sent me. He has no recommendation. But he thinks the first two are the most well branded and so have better chances of survival.
Microsoft is offering 40GB of free archive space (not backup, but online storage) with a free Windows Live account.

Mthson said at September 27, 2009 5:03 PM:

Thanks for the tips, Randall and IN.

The grocery chain I use, Safeway, charges $6.95 per delivery if you give them a 4 hour window to deliver, and $9.95 if you give them a 2 hour window. The minimum purchase is around $50. They also give free delivery with purchases over $150. (That's through special codes they email you each week.)

Lono said at September 28, 2009 8:42 AM:

Mthson, In, Randall,

You all make some excellent points - and thanks for the tips!

It always makes me feel more motivated when talking with people who aren't like the 98% of people I encounter everyday - whose utter ignorance, boldly expressed, often drains the from me the very will to live...


I still thing a large part of the reason we don't have many automated processes, that are well within our technological reach, is that there is a huge financial conflict of interest for the small fraction of industrialists who control the manufacturing sector, who would rather give us inferior products that need to be replaced frequently...

If there is anything that gives me a why to live (besides my Religious convictions) it is the need to see the old, irrelevant, criminal order overturned so that Social AND technological progress can get another boost through a new Age of Reason...

(anyone see that Family Guy last night by the way - that first Universe is much closer to the one we should be living in - although, of course, I take exception with the idea that Christianity is a severely negative influence on technological advancement)

TW said at September 28, 2009 10:22 AM:

I think this is a misleading headline. I don't see anything in this study, as it's described, that points to willpower being 'finite,' as the headline states. The word 'finite' makes me think that you can't replenish your supply of willpower. The study seems to indicate that cognitive exertion is taxing, just as physical exertion is, and leaves us with less energy for other tasks, just as physical exertion does. But I don't see how this supports the idea that our willpower is finite in any other sense than that we simply tend not to do things for which we don't have energy. A better headline would have been: "Mental exertion leaves less energy for physical tasks."

Mark Buehner said at September 28, 2009 10:24 AM:

"What situations or tasks deplete your willpower? Introspect and see if you can identify what does it to you and which depleters you can avoid."

Aren't those instructions contradictory? People think to much. This proves it.

Kelly said at September 28, 2009 11:16 AM:

I quit smoking in June. I had taken up running and biking several months before I quit. Turns out I can give up smoking, I can keep exercising, but apparently I can't stop myself from eating all at the same time. I'll probably stop exercising for awhile to lose the weight that's beginning to pile on.

Mark said at September 28, 2009 11:29 AM:

I wonder if you make it a habit does it reduce the amount of will-power necessary to accomplish the task. For example, exercise, if you always work out after work, no matter how much willpower is used at the office might you will still work out after because you always do. Just a thought.

Rich Vail said at September 28, 2009 11:29 AM:

I don't suppose THINKING about exercising is enough to deplete your will power?

Dex said at September 28, 2009 12:05 PM:

Your missing supplement is: glucose.

John Becker said at September 28, 2009 12:23 PM:

The Residents had a music video years ago: "I was just exhausted from the act of being polite..."

Brett J said at September 28, 2009 1:20 PM:

Nootropics, anyone? If there's a (perceived) need in the field highlighted by this study, there's some sort of supplement in the works.

AGMycroft said at September 28, 2009 4:26 PM:

I'm a little surprised to see this being reported/accepted as news. The original psychological research on willpower depletion (a Baumeister et al. book) dates back 15 years, to 1994.

Even the Stroop test -- the specific instrument used in the McMaster study -- has been previously studied in the willpower-depletion literature. See, for example, the literature review in which cites several papers from 2005 and before that use this method.

Wacky Hermit said at September 28, 2009 5:30 PM:

Dex: This explains a lot.

My life is very stressful and requires willpower for just about every task (caring for special needs kids, day in and day out with no respite care because they're not mentally retarded and the state only gives respite care for mentally retarded kids). I find myself eating a lot of candy, which of course makes me fat. Even with all the running around I do, I'm still fat. I can't get rid of my stressors till they turn 18, but at least now I know why I eat so much candy.

Randall Parker said at September 28, 2009 6:24 PM:

Mark Buehner,

Mental exertions that produce ways to avoid future drains on your willpower can be a net plus in the long run.


Yes, I've read previous reports on research into willpower. See my April 8, 2008 post Brain Willpower Depleted By Use. But I find it interesting every time I read a new report about it.


My April 8, 2008 post Brain Willpower Depleted By Use includes a report about glucose and willpower.

coldequation said at September 29, 2009 5:51 AM:

This is another reason why bogus medical advice, like the advice to avoid salt and fat, is harmful - you could be using your willpower to do something useful instead. It's also part of why poor people are fat. Food: cheap, tasty, convenient, and healthy - pick three.

Randall Parker said at September 29, 2009 7:29 PM:


You make a good point. We have limited supplies of willpower. Best to spend one's willpower on the most bang for the buck.

I advise people to put effort into eating better food rather than avoiding bad food. Eat vegetables and fruits before eating what you crave. Lessen the amount of junk eaten by first filling up on veggies.

Joshua said at October 1, 2009 6:41 AM:

I think TW has it right. Showing that cognitive exertion counts as exertion when it comes to willpower, or that all tasks requiring willpower draw from the same reserve, isn't the same as showing that willpower is finite, with the implication that it can't be increased. Exercising heavily will also deplete your ability to exercise heavily in the near term, but performed regularly it will increase your capacity for exercise even to the point where some tasks that counted as exertion before become trivial. As far as I know, it's still an open question whether willpower works this way, so you can train yourself to have more reserves, or whether you're stuck with what you've got and should be concentrating on budgeting strategies so you don't waste precious willpower on stupid stuff. If anybody knows any research that sheds light on that point, I'd love to hear about it.

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