Battery and snowball: that’s how you build willpower

Battery and snowball: that’s how you build willpower

You’re confident that this year, you will persist with your New Year’s resolutions through the year. Come February: “Maybe next year, I’ll show more control. I will give this year a rain check”.

Why are we so bad at sticking to our goals? Why are we so short on self-control and will power?

Willpower is a finite resource; we have a fixed capacity for the trait. A large body of studies exists in support of the limited nature of self-control. Like a battery, you can run out of charge (and risk damaging the device) if you drain it to the limit. You can charge a battery again and start over, but with self-control, each attempt at pushing yourself to the hilt leaves behind a strong residue of negative feeling which makes the next effort tough to start.

The key is in using will power (the battery) in short spurts and building up your resilience (the snowball).

If your resolution is to get fit enough to make a 10 km run with comfort, you don’t start by trying to run the distance on the first day. The fatigue and soreness which follows will dissuade you from trying again. You start by running a small length and stop while you are still feeling good. You increase the distance by moderate amounts every few days, remaining at all times within your comfort zone. Surely, but surely, you will reach the 10 km goal and feel good after it. This positive feeling will sustain your exercise effort over a long time.

If you are starting a weight reduction diet, don’t jump cold turkey into the 800 calories, no-carb programme. You will fail. Start with cutting out sugared drinks first, then the white bread and keep extending the list, a few days at a time, item by item. Weight loss will be slower, but you are much more likely to stay on the diet and shed kilos in the long term. Each sustained success will boost the next onward sally.

There is a welcome bonus to this tactic. When you build muscle, the workouts at the gym are of value when you need to do other challenging physical activities. Likewise, will power gained from one endeavour will extend to other personal changes that you kick-off. Self-confidence and enthusiasm build with each victory.

The bottom line: you have to train yourself to become a snowball using momentum from short bursts of the battery.

Read more: 

Self-control: Knowledge or perishable resource? Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, 2018. Marco A, et al

[Previous studies account for] the mechanism through which self-control affects individual behavior in the short-run, with two competing models. The first model, “ego or resource depletion model” views self-control as a perishable resource, which is depleted following an initial self-control act, hence impeding self-control ability in the short-run. On the other hand, the second model views self-control as a “knowledge structure”, where this knowledge is accessed following any initial self-control act, and it serves as motivation for improving self-control ability in the short-run. (

Dr Arjun Rajagopalan


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