Is Willpower a Limited Resource? (Post #7)


Confession: When I was in high school, I had a pretty serious crush on MacGyver. In fact, I credit him for how hard I worked in my senior year physics class. I needed to know how to make an airplane (or at least a glider), how to diffuse a bomb, and how to survive snake bites… all with just the materials I had on hand. After all, if I ever met MacGyver in person, I needed for him to be impressed with my ability to make something out of nothing! Alas, that bucket list was never achieved, but I did get an “A” in physics!

Unlike MacGyver, our driving desire to do something significant often seems to be met with the reality of insufficient resources. In other words, our desire does not match our reality. If only I could “MacGyver” my way through it! Have you ever felt this way?

The Unfair Experiment

One case in point is the example of willpower. Did you know that willpower and self-control is a limited resource? That’s what Dr. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues discovered when they performed an interesting “radishes vs. chocolate chip cookies” experiment.

One group of subjects were welcomed into a lab that smelled of fresh chocolate chip cookies. The delicious looking cookies were on a table next to a bowl of not-so-delicious-looking radishes. This unlucky group was told to help themselves to the radishes, but the cookies were off limits. After a period of time passed, this same group was taken into another room where they were given a geometric puzzle to solve with paper and pencil. The nasty secret is that the puzzle was unsolvable.

A second group of subjects (we’ll call them the lucky group), were taken into the same delicious smelling room and were told to help themselves to the cookies, but please leave the radishes alone. This group was then taken into another room and given the same unsolvable puzzle.

Can you guess which group persisted longer?

That’s right, the happy people who had just enjoyed fresh, hot chocolate chip cookies. The point? Self-control is a limited resource. The researchers discovered that willpower and self-control have limits, and these limits can be depleted in unrelated scenarios.

Thanks a lot MythBusters.

In February of 2008, the Discovery show “MythBusters” celebrated their 100th episode with a “MacGyver Special.” Imagine my excitement as I tuned in, only to have my heart broken as the hosts of the show systematically and ruthlessly busted MacGyver and most of his marvelous tricks. Turns out you can’t escape from a concrete prison by mixing together one gram of sodium with warm water.

The fact is, our resources ARE limited. Unlike MacGyver, who can prevent a nuclear meltdown with a chocolate bar and duct tape, we do have limited resources at times. Especially when we are seeking to make a significant change. Our “energy for change,” or willpower, is a limited resource. If we are frustrated by a desire to change, but no ability to see it through, perhaps we can ask this question: “What is using up my willpower? Where am I focusing my energy?” If we are using all our self-control to resist those amazing cookies, it’s no wonder we have nothing left for that dumb geometric puzzle. Two unrelated things can both be sucking life out of the same energy reserves.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER: What is your willpower energy going into? What pieces of that do you have control over? How does faith impact our willpower reserves?

BONUS QUESTION: What is MacGyver’s first name? (No Google answers! That’s cheating!)

About Amy deVries

I am a Professional Christian Coach living in the Pacific Northwest.
This entry was posted in Personal Leadership Skills and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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