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