Willpower: A Finite Resource?


There’s a debate in the scientific community whether willpower is a finite resource, so to speak, and it fades as the day progresses, or it is widely available throughout the day. Well, the research shows both can be true actually. And here’s why.

Too many big decisions early in the day is taxing on the brain and can lead to brain fatigue. Research shows the way to combat this is to spread out hard tasks and decisions throughout the day. This helps preserve willpower and gives the brain time to recover for higher demand situations later in the day. Another way to combat this is to make everyday decisions (like what you wear) as mundane as possible so you don’t have to spend too much brain energy on them.

But, on the other hand, research also shows that if you BELIEVE willpower is not a limited resource, and you BELIEVE you can get hard things done and exercise self-control throughout the day, you absolutely can. As with most things in our lives, beliefs play a crucial role in determining how we feel and behave. 

What Affects Willpower?

In addition to spreading out hard tasks and taking breaks throughout the day, you can increase and preserve willpower by eating healthy or maintaining a healthy fuel source for your brain. Also, getting high quality sleep is a must. Poor sleep and poor nutrition can kill willpower, regardless of your beliefs about it. But you should also work on your beliefs about willpower by taking additional measures to increase it. 

But what controls willpower? There is a specific part of the brain that controls willpower. It is a part of the prefrontal cortex called the anterior midcingulate cortex or ACC. One really cool study showed when this portion of the brain was stimulated, patients reported sensations of perseverance and a sense of needing to push through something hard. They described feelings as though they could persist in the face of adversity and feelings as though they were about to go do something or they needed to go do something. And these feelings and sensations are essentially what is or what drives willpower. 

This part of the brain is highly susceptible to neuroplasticity, according to Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman. Which is great news and means we can change it, improve it, and increase our willpower. Specifically, when we perform hard physical tasks that are uncomfortable, like a cold plunge or a vigorous workout, we directly affect and elevate the activity of the ACC in a positive way. But here’s the key: whatever you are engaging in, you need to feel some resistance before you even start it. 

How to Increase Willpower 

For example, if you already enjoy getting into cold showers, that won’t be as beneficial as if you get into a cold plunge tank where the temperature is 20 degrees colder and you are feeling a lot of resistance from experiencing that older temperature. Or if you are already a gym rat, you need to pick a new exercise or activity at the end of your workout that is undesirable and do that. 

There’s a major psychological component to this. Making the choice to engage in something difficult is just as important as the difficult physical task itself. And that’s what trains the brain to increase its capacity for willpower. The higher the resistance, the higher you engage that brain area, and the more benefit you will derive i.e. greater willpower.

So again, when we are well rested and eating healthy, we can increase our willpower. But also, when we are physically active, we can and do affect the ACC. And this is all pretty logical, and makes perfect sense. If you want to build up willpower, you need to do the hard things. Or you need to resist the easy things, but specifically with regards to physical activities. That’s most important and directly affects the part of the brain responsible for willpower. 

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