4 Things That Kill Your Willpower

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So far, I wrote two articles (1,2) on willpower — both focussing on how to increase it. Yet, boosting your willpower can also mean to not deplete it, or frankly, have it deplete less. As we’ve learned previously, willpower behaves like a muscle that can easily be weakened. Solely adding more weight or in our case forcing ourselves to be more disciplined, however, isn’t the only factor that depletes willpower. There are several factors that make our willpower drain. And most of them can easily be prevented.

Firstly, conflicting goals make willpower dry up faster. [1] If you set your goals, make sure that they are in line with each other. As easy as this sounds, most of us fail at this task simply because of trying to avoid to say no. Promising your girlfriend to be home early and committing to extra work at the same time is a classic example. This creates worry, worry creates stress, and stress depletes your willpower. A study shows that merely perceiving your life as stressful makes you less disciplined and pertinacious. [2] Mindset is indeed king. How we think about ourselves plays an important role for self-regulation.

Moreover, another factor that hinders you from reaching your goals is: Reaching your goals. [3] As ironic as this finding sounds, it makes intuitive sense. The further you think you’ve made it towards your goal, the higher is your urge to reward yourself. This is known as goal liberation. The aforementioned study found that dieters that were reminded of their progress in terms of losing weight chose a chocolate bar over an apple in 85% of cases — compared to 58% when not reminded about their progress. A similar study found that once students were encouraged to feel good about the time studied so far, were much more likely to play beer pong. The finding also has another implication: Don’t set too many sub-goals. Reaching those might give you the feeling of doing well, but it’s nothing more than a cheap trick of your mind seducing you into less productive behaviour.

Thirdly, simply the illusion of productivity makes you more unproductive. This is especially true for to-do lists. Studies show that the mere fact of creating a to-do list makes people more likely to spend time on leisure activities. You might know this very well. Do you remember the last YouTube video you watched about productivity, which made you instantly feel more productive? Even if you haven’t produced any practical results yet? Or do you remember the last time you felt good about a cancelled call because suddenly extra time opens up? Yet the call is still to be made on another day, and if not, the call wasn’t necessary in the first place. [4]

Lastly, a very strong willpower killer is having too many choices. One study examined how two different grocery stores displayed 6 versus 24 different flavours of jam. The second store attracted twice as many people, yet the first one — with only 6 flavours — sold twice as much. The conversion rate was thus four times higher. People like being confronted with many choices and possibilities, yet making decisions depletes willpower. We’re again back to the most prominent phenomenon around the topic: Ego depletion. [5]

Action Steps

  1. Don’t set conflicting goals. Yet, it’s not that simple. Just setting the goal of not setting conflicting goals won’t do much. Create a goal log. Reflect everyday on what your goals were and how well you did in achieving them. You will soon discover conflicting goals and learn how to avoid them in the long-term.
  2. When you get closer to your goals, beware of goal liberation. Do not remind yourself of how far you already made it, rather try to do the opposite. Think about how far you still need to go. Think even about times you resisted short-term urges last time and why you did so. One study finds that 70% of people reflecting on resisting past temptations indulged subsequently. That number dropped to 31% when they also had to recall why they resisted. [6]
  3. Do not confuse result-producing tasks with non-result-producing tasks. Learning, planning and reflecting is important in the long-term, yet doing those things shouldn’t give you the illusion that you’ve been productive. Of course, if studying for an exam is your goal, then learning actually produces a ‘result’. In most other cases, learning, planning and reflecting makes you more efficient, but will never bring you closer to a goal itself. To reach a goal, you actually need to attend to result-producing tasks. That might be sitting down and writing words, writing code, doing phone calls or creating a power point presentation. Ask yourself every day: What are the result-producing tasks and what are the non-result-producing tasks I’m confronted with. Don’t confuse them with each other.
  4. Lastly, avoid having too many choices. Before you go to bed, define the ONE goal for the next day. Prepare your tasks, organise them and put them in a clear order the day before so that you do not have to spend time on thinking about which task to do first. Moreover, get used to applying quick filters to your decision making. When scanning restaurants for the evening, before you might try to consider all of them at once, ask filtering questions around proximity and cuisine.


[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Books.

[2] Crescioni, A. W. (2012).The Frayed Edges of Willpower: Perceptions of Stress Impair Self-Regulatory Performance

[3] Fishbach, A., and R. Dhar. Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice. Journal of ConsumerResearch.32 (2005): 370–77.

[4] Fishbach, A., R. Dhar, and Y. Zhang. Subgoals as Substitutes or Complements: The Role of Goal Accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 91 (2006): 232–42.

[5] Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995–1006. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.995

[6] Mukhopadhyay, A., J. Sengupta, and S. Ramanathan. Recalling Past Temptations: An Information-Processing Perspective on the Dynamics of Self-Control. Journal of Consumer Research.35 (2008): 586–99.

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