Jump directly to the content

Already a subscriber?

Home > 2011 > November Web Exclusives > Why Willpower Fails

What's your toughest management challenge?

It's not your time, your direct reports, your elders, your deacons, your denominational superiors, your budget realities, or the expectations of your toughest critics who attended Catalyst, the Leadership Summit and dislike both John Piper and Rob Bell.

It's willpower.

There is a man named Roy Baumeister who is cranking out remarkable work these days. He's likely the world's top experimental social psychologist, and he is almost single-handedly bringing the concept of "will" back to psychology. (He's got a book out now called Willpower that is well worth reading.)

Ever wonder why it's hard to keep New Years' resolutions? One of Baumeister's early experiments was to investigate the nature of willpower. In this experiment, one group of people had to resist the temptation to eat delicious fresh chocolate chip cookies, while another group had to resist eating radishes. Then both groups were given (secretly) insoluble math problems to solve. It turns out that the subjects who had been resisting chocolate chip cookies gave up on trying to solve math problems much more quickly than the subjects who only had to resist eating radishes.

In other words, Baumeister has found, willpower is real, and able to make a difference, but it is a finite commodity. It's a lot like a muscle—if you do as many push-ups as you can and then immediately try to see how much you can bench press, it won't be much. Willpower, like a muscle, can be built up over time. But in the short term it's easily fatigued.

A finite commodity

Baumeister discovered that you have a finite amount of willpower that gets depleted as you use it. He also found that you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. You don't get separate stockpiles for different areas like relationships vs. physical activities.

That's why a long list of New Year's resolutions is almost certainly doomed. It takes a whole lot of willpower to get on an exercise and diet program to lose weight. You will not have a great deal left over. If you add on the list: get on a budget, start keeping your office clean, and read Calvin's Institutes every week, you set yourself up for failure.

What are the activities that require willpower? Resisting temptation does, as does persisting in a difficult problem. Making choices requires willpower, which is why you can get exhausted picking songs for a service or sermon topics. (Nothing wears me out faster than having to pick out sermon topics. There is something to be said for the lectionary). Management takes exertion of the will, which is why leading elder meetings can be tiring. And why, afterward, it feels so relaxing to come home and be able to "just be myself."

The field of psychology generally calls willpower "self-regulation," and its opposite "ego-depletion." Those terms sound more scientific than the biblical language of "self-control," but it turns out Paul knew what he was talking about when he listed this as a fruit of the Spirit critical for human flourishing. For most of us in ministry, our wills get depleted far more quickly and more often and more seriously than our bodies do.

PreviousFirstPage 1 of 2NextLast

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Related Topics:AmbitionEnduranceEnergyMotivation
Posted: November 22, 2011

Not a Subscriber?

Subscribe Today!

  • Monthly issues on web and iPad
  • Web exclusives and archives on Leadership Journal.net
  • Quarterly print issues

Print subscriber? Activate your online account for complete access.

Join the Conversation

Average User Rating:

Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments

Tim Gapinski

September 04, 2012  5:34pm

Finally! The opposite of Jesus is not our will. I’m proud you saw Baumeister’s wisdom to not go there in your final sentence. Oblivious talking heads rarely break this down on a practical level neglecting how it can translate. This false teaching even hurts those who don’t need it. Christian Businessmen, with their daily groomed will-power neglect their artistic brothers because of it. Often giving every ounce of their productive wills to the work place or in constructing their monster bbq pit. Adopting a spiritualized libertarian view that the best thing they can give their brothers in the area of will-power is nothing. Denying their weariness, enthusiastic that Jesus is all about hanging out around the bbq, man. Leaving the pit, jealous of my timelessness childhood and me disappointed I did not even get one bite of their father. The title I thought for sure pointed to the typical evangelical, starbucks, deconstructionist-hippy-sentiment. TGF Baumeister Keep keepin it fresh!

Report Abuse

Karen Beculhimer

July 20, 2012  5:25pm

Fascinating! But I think if you practice willpower over time you would become used to it. Setting a few achievable goals does go a long way in reducing stress levels! Too many goals is overwhelming, and too few is just lazy.

Report Abuse


December 29, 2011  11:09pm

Great article made me understand why I get burned out. It also made me in clear way the need To prioritize... Awesome !!

Report Abuse
Use your Leadership Journal login to easily comment and rate this article.
Not part of the community? Subscribe, or on public pages, register for a free account.
Editor's Pick
The Prodigal Daughter

The Prodigal Daughter

What I said when a pastor friend asked me to preach after his daughter strayed.
Sister Sites