What Science Says About Motivation, Willpower and Burnout

We all know that making major lifestyle changes is difficult, but what’s interesting about this isn’t the fact that these shifts are so hard to make.  What’s much more interesting is the science lurking behind our common misconceptions about motivation, willpower and burnout…

Think about how you feel when you first start out with a new self-improvement plan.  Say you decide to lose 50 pounds over the next year, using a number of different strategies you put in place to curb cravings and minimize temptations.  At first, you’re excited about your daily walk and increased servings of vegetables, because they’re all going to help you get to the end result you so desire.

But over time, it becomes harder and harder to stick to your new habits.  Yes, the thought of being ready for next year’s swimsuit season is still appealing, but you simply can’t summon up the motivation to keep your unhealthy desires at bay.  You beat yourself up and get frustrated at your perceived lack of willpower – though if you understood the science behind this concept, you’d understand that you’ve set yourself up for failure.

According to an interesting meta-analysis study conducted by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, which reviewed hundreds of smaller self-control trials carried out over the past few decades:

Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts.  Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations all require self-control, and after such self-control efforts, subsequent attempts at self-control are more likely to fail.

In other words, self-control is like a muscle.  If you work it to death, you risk failure – just as you’d be unable to bench press a set weight after going over the maximum numbers of reps your body can handle.  At the same time, with repeated practice, the muscle of willpower can grow stronger, enabling you to handle increased self-control demands without failure.

So, if you go back to our earlier example of the failed weight loss attempt, it’s obvious that the hypothetical subject didn’t fail because he’s destined to be fat or because he doesn’t “deserve” to lose weight – he simply exceeded his personal capacity for self-control.

Knowing this, there are a number of different actions that can be taken in order to build willpower over time:

Step #1 – Tackle a single habit at a time

In my previous article on how to “Make Major Life Changes by Altering Your Habits,” I discussed how important it is to focus on a single habit at a time.  However, in light of this scientific evidence on the formation of personal willpower, this point bears repeating.

Tackling a major problem – like weight loss, career change or wealth accumulation – at once stresses our bodies’ self-control reserves, simply because so many habits must be changed.  Following with our weight loss example, you won’t lose weight by dropping Cheetos alone – instead, you need to pair dietary changes with new exercise routines, improvements to your sleeping habits and more.  Each of these individual habit changes requires a piece of your finite amount of internal self-control, limiting the amount that will be available for the next effort.

Instead, it’s vitally important that you hone in on a single habit to change at first.  As your self-control muscle strengthens, you may be able to add more changes to your daily routines.  But at the start of any self-improvement plan, focusing on a single habit will prevent your willpower reserves from failing when you need them most.

Step #2 – Start with habits that can’t fail

If you’ve never made an effort to improve your capacity for self-control, you may also find it helpful to start changing habits that are so small in scope that they’re nearly impossible to fail.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, cutting out one can of soda each day (even if you tend to drink several in one sitting) is one habit that could be changed in order to provide momentum for your self-improvement plan.  Sure, it’s not likely to result in major weight changes on its own, but successfully completing this habit – which can be done without much effort – will build your confidence and improve your ability to tackle more challenging habits in the future.

Step #3 – Plan major life changes around your calendar

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are good times and bad times to pursue self-improvement plans.  Energy is cumulative, so if you’re burning your available willpower on a major professional initiative, you may not have enough resources left over to commit to making changes within your personal life.

So before undertaking any major lifestyle changes, look at your calendar to identify times when the demands on your energy will be at their lowest.  Scheduling your self-improvement goals during these windows of opportunity will increase the availability of self-control energy needed to maintain motivation and avoid burnout throughout your habit changes.


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