It’s late on a Friday afternoon. You’ve already spent hours on a mind-twisting task. But before you can turn in for the evening you have another demanding project that requires your attention.
It’s going to take some serious willpower to stay focused. Will you power through? Or will you stagger to the weekend? The answer depends on how you think about your state of mind in this kind of situation
Perhaps you think of willpower like fuel in a car – your reserves are already running low and the last project is going to drain you further. Or maybe you see willpower as sustained by a challenge - you’re feeling fatigued but you know engaging with the last project will recharge you.
Ongoing research by psychologists suggests that these two perspectives on willpower are self-fulfilling. Just thinking that willpower is a limited resource makes it more likely that you’ll feel depleted after a demanding task. However, if you see challenges as motivation, you are more likely to perform as if your willpower is unlimited.
Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and her colleagues at Stanford University tested this by asking 60 students whether willpower is a limited resource that’s depleted by effort, or if it’s potentially unlimited and recharged by a challenge. Next, the students were given two taxing mental tasks in succession. The first was an awkward editing task, the second involved naming the actual color of color words while ignoring their meaning (e.g. the word “green” written in red).
If you see challenges as motivation, you are more likely to perform as if your willpower is unlimited.
For students who believed that willpower is a limited resource, giving them an extra tricky editing task left them frazzled for the color-naming challenge and their performance suffered as a result. It was a different story for the students who saw their willpower as unlimited. They performed just as well on the color-naming challenge regardless of whether the editing task was made extra difficult or not. In other words, whatever the students believed about willpower ended up coming true.
Of course, a problem with this study is that it’s possible the students who saw willpower as unlimited really did have a lot of willpower. Fortunately there’s evidence that suggests it’s easy to optimize our mindset, with potential benefits for our performance. For a study published this year, instead of measuring students’ beliefs about willpower, Job and her co-workers at Stanford instead tried seeing how easy it is to influence those beliefs.
There’s evidence that suggests it’s easy to optimize our mindset.
The researchers found that having the students think about willpower as fueled by challenge – they exposed them to a series of statements like “it is energizing to be fully absorbed with a demanding mental task” – was enough to help boost their performance. When they undertook an arduous 20-minute memory challenge on a computer, rather than getting mentally fatigued, their performance kept getting better. Other students exposed to statements about willpower being limited only showed improvement through half the task, after which they zoned out. In other words, how we think about willpower seems highly suggestible, which then affects our performance.
Taken together, this research shows how important our attitudes about willpower are for the way we perform, and why it is vital to get in the right mindset before undertaking a piece of demanding work. The next time you’re confronted by a daunting task late in the day, remind yourself that mental perseverance is often a case of “mind over mind.” If you see it as a draining chore, it’s likely you really will act as though mentally exhausted. But if you see the work as a challenge that will engage your mind, you’ll find that you rise to the occasion..