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Willpower is the muscle flex needed to keep swimming.

Willpower: A Muscle To Flex, Or Spoons To Conserve?

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Willpower: A Muscle To Flex, Or Spoons To Conserve?

We have previously written about motivation; this one’s not about that.

Rather, it’s about willpower itself, and especially, the maintenance of such. Which prompts the question…

Is willpower something that can be built up through practice, or something that is a finite resource that can be expended?

That depends on you—and your experiences.

  • Some people believe willpower is a metaphorical “muscle” that must be exercised to be built up
  • Some people believe willpower is a matter of metaphorical “spoons” that can be used up

A quick note on spoon theory: this traces its roots to Christine Miserandino’s 2003 essay about chronic illness and the management of limited energy. She details how she explained this to a friend in a practical fashion, she gave her a bunch of spoons from her kitchen, as an arbitrary unit of energy currency. These spoons would then need to be used to “pay” for tasks done; soon her friend realised that if she wanted to make it through the day, she was going to have to give more forethought to how she would “spend” her spoons, or she’d run out and be helpless (and perhaps hungry and far from home) before the day’s end. So, the kind of forethought and planning that a lot of people with chronic illnesses have to give to every day’s activities.

You can read it here: But You Don’t Look Sick? The Spoon Theory

So, why do some people believe one way, and some believe the other? It comes down to our experiences of our own willpower being built or expended. Researchers (Dr. Vanda Siber et al.) studied this, and concluded:

❝The studies support the idea that what people believe about willpower depends, at least in part, on recent experiences with tasks as being energizing or draining.❞

Source: Autonomous Goal Striving Promotes a Nonlimited Theory About Willpower

In other words, there’s a difference between going out running each morning while healthy, and doing so with (for example) lupus.

On a practical level, this translates to practicable advice:

  • If something requires willpower but is energizing, this is the muscle kind! Build it.
  • If something requires willpower and is draining, this is the spoons kind! Conserve it.

Read the above two bullet-points as many times as necessary to cement them into your hippocampus, because they are the most important message of today’s newsletter.

Do you tend towards the “nonlimited” belief, despite getting tired? If so, here’s why…

There is something that can continue to empower us even when we get physically fatigued, and that’s the extent to which we truly get a choice about what we’re doing. In other words, that “Autonomous” at the front of the title of the previous study, isn’t just word salad.

  • If we perceive ourselves as choosing to do what we are doing, with free will and autonomy (i.e., no externally created punitive consequences), we will feel much more empowered, and that goes for our willpower too.
  • If we perceive ourselves as doing what we have to (or suffer the consequences), we’ll probably do it, but we’ll find it draining, and that goes for our willpower too.

Until such a time as age-related physical and mental decline truly take us, we as humans tend to gradually accumulate autonomy in our lives. We start as literal babies, then are children with all important decisions made for us, then adolescents building our own identity and ways of doing things, then young adults launching ourselves into the world of adulthood (with mixed results), to a usually more settled middle-age that still has a lot of external stressors and responsibilities, to old age, where we’ve often most things in order, and just ourselves and perhaps our partner to consider.


Age differences in implicit theories about willpower: why older people endorse a nonlimited theory

…which explains why the 30-year-old middle-manager might break down and burn out and stop going to work, while an octogenarian is busy training for a marathon daily before getting back to their daily book-writing session, without fail.

One final thing…

If you need a willpower boost, have a snack*. If you need to willpower boost to avoid snacking, then plan for this in advance by finding a way to keep your blood sugars stable. Because…

The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control

*Something that will keep your blood sugars stable, not spike them. Nuts are a great example, unless you’re allergic to such, because they have a nice balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.

Want more on that? Read: 10 Ways To Balance Blood Sugars

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