Willpower Is Finite. That's Science!
In Everything Is Crumbling in Slate last month, author Daniel Engber describes how willpower gets used up by describing the results of a twenty-year-old study. Two groups of test subjects were asked to spend time solving an impossible puzzle after they were left alone with a plate of quite luscious chocolate chip cookies and not so inviting radishes. One group was told it could only eat cookies. One group was told it could only eat radishes. The subjects who were allowed to eat cookies spent more time on the impossible puzzle then the subjects who had to use their valuable willpower avoiding the cookies because they were instructed to eat radishes.
"The authors," Engber says, "called this effect “ego depletion” and said it revealed a fundamental fact about the human mind: We all have a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse. Eating a radish when you’re surrounded by fresh-baked cookies represents an epic feat of self-denial, and one that really wears you out. Willpower, argued Baumeister and Tice, draws down mental energy—it’s a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion."
According to Engber, scores of studies using similar procedures supported these findings.
And that supports everything I've read about willpower, time management, and procrastination.
Or Is Willpower Finite After All?
Engber goes on to report that a paper is going to be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science that "describes a massive effort to reproduce the main effect that underlies this work. Comprising more than 2,000 subjects tested at two-dozen different labs on several continents, the study found exactly nothing...No sign that the human will works as it’s been described, or that these hundreds of studies amount to very much at all."
Engber's article focuses on how the new study brings into question the old willpower study, and the significance of an established study and the established knowledge it provides being called into question. My interest?
Were these studies the basis for the time management programs developed around working in short increments of time in order to replenish willpower? If so, what does this mean for time management?
Of course, the problems with these studies may not mean that willpower isn't finite and isn't depleted over the course of the day. It may just mean that these particular studies don't prove it. But if these studies were used by time management people, are we just left in limbo?