How to Power Through Any Demanding Task

It’s late on a Friday afternoon. You’ve already spent hours on a mind-twisting task. But before you can turn in for the evening you have another demanding project that requires your attention. It’s going to take some serious willpower to stay focused. Will you power through? Or will you stagger to the weekend? The answer depends on how you think about your state of mind in this kind of situation.

Perhaps you think of willpower like fuel in a car – your reserves are already running low and the last project is going to drain you further. Or maybe you see willpower as sustained by a challenge – you’re feeling fatigued but you know engaging with the last project will recharge you.Ongoing research by psychologists suggests that these two perspectives on willpower are self-fulfilling. Just thinking that willpower is a limited resource makes it more likely that you’ll feel depleted after a demanding task. However, if you see challenges as motivation, you are more likely to perform as if your willpower is unlimited.

Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and her colleagues at Stanford University tested this by asking 60 students whether willpower is a limited resource that’s depleted by effort, or if it’s potentially unlimited and recharged by a challenge. Next, the students were given two taxing mental tasks in succession. The first was an awkward editing task, the second involved naming the actual color of color words while ignoring their meaning (e.g. the word “green” written in red).

If you see challenges as motivation, you are more likely to perform as if your willpower is unlimited.

For students who believed that willpower is a limited resource, giving them an extra tricky editing task left them frazzled for the color-naming challenge and their performance suffered as a result. It was a different story for the students who saw their willpower as unlimited. They performed just as well on the color-naming challenge regardless of whether the editing task was made extra difficult or not. In other words, whatever the students believed about willpower ended up coming true.

Of course, a problem with this study is that it’s possible the students who saw willpower as unlimited really did have a lot of willpower. Fortunately there’s evidence that suggests it’s easy to optimize our mindset, with potential benefits for our performance. For a study published this year, instead of measuring students’ beliefs about willpower, Job and her co-workers at Stanford instead tried seeing how easy it is to influence those beliefs.

There’s evidence that suggests it’s easy to optimize our mindset.

The researchers found that having the students think about willpower as fueled by challenge – they exposed them to a series of statements like “it is energizing to be fully absorbed with a demanding mental task” – was enough to help boost their performance. When they undertook an arduous 20-minute memory challenge on a computer, rather than getting mentally fatigued, their performance kept getting better. Other students exposed to statements about willpower being limited only showed improvement through half the task, after which they zoned out. In other words, how we think about willpower seems highly suggestible, which then affects our performance.

Taken together, this research shows how important our attitudes about willpower are for the way we perform, and why it is vital to get in the right mindset before undertaking a piece of demanding work. The next time you’re confronted by a daunting task late in the day, remind yourself that mental perseverance is often a case of “mind over mind.” If you see it as a draining chore, it’s likely you really will act as though mentally exhausted. But if you see the work as a challenge that will engage your mind, you’ll find that you rise to the occasion.

What’s Your Take?

Do you think your willpower is limitless? Or do you often need to “recharge?”

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Focus, Perseverance

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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  • WordPress Tribe

    This recharged me and helped reinforce how powerful our internal communication is. Regardless of our tendencies it sounds like we can improve our productivity and more crucially minimize our stress levels.

    Obviously there’s times when we just need to take a break, but how we get there and the habits we reinforce is what’s important here.

    Great stuff thank you.

  • Wonderful

    A agree that how you look at your will power affects your performance. Just this weekend, I was so tired and sleepy, yet I managed to be able to dance, quite nice to the tunes of Underground Horns. (I did become more tired, after the music ended). Yet, hours before, I kept feeling sleepy because I had to do laundry and kept dropping into bed for 5 minutes re-coop.
    So, it’s interesting that I can sustain energy for dancing, but not for chores. =)

  • Parvesh A. Deosarran

    Great article. But how can I know that some or any task is challenging? Should my background for example fit in the requirements for this task? I mean, living ‘life’ is itself a quite daunting experience. If I think of it as a challenge, then suddenly my mind generates the energy I need to fulfil my dream?

  • Kennett Kwok

    Very interesting article but there’s so many variables involved and the article only scratches the surface.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Parvesh, I think the message from this research is not so much about whether the nature of a particular task is challenging or not. It’s about how you perceive that task; it’s also about how you see your own mental resources.

  • Christian Jarrett

    great example, thanks!

  • Gis Jonte

    Very good article! It hapens to me all the time, I get tired very soon.
    Thank you so much for this, I’ll start with this motivation task tomorrow as soon as I get out of bed!

  • Chris

    I like how you write your articles! Thank you.

  • Ciarán Mc Mahon

    As a historian of psychological theory, I find debates like this fascinating. The very idea of willpower fell out of favour in the literature in the early 20th century, having been an essential concept in the previous one. This is because of the rise of the scientific/mechanistic approach to psychology – basically, willpower being an innate force (nevermind the religious/spiritual overtones) is hard to reconcile with the idea of human beings being input/output organisms. I mean, if you’re a scientist, where does willpower come from? So willpower fell from favour, and was replaced my more scientific notions like motivation and learning.

    But now, in the last decade or so, the debate has re-opened. The thing is though, is that the idea of willpower as a resource, especially as a glucose/energy resource, fits nicely into a scientific/positivistic/mechanistic worldview (even though in this study it doesn’t seem to have been particularly useful to the participants) whereas I find it hard to see how the willpower as limitless/challenge-responsive idea can fit into any scientific model. Of course it fits into a spiritual/religious perspective perfectly – but that starts a very long debate, all over again….

  • Christian Jarrett

    Hi Ciarán, thanks for your comments – really interesting. Recent years have seen a lot of evidence put forward for the idea that we have a limited amount of willpower. The search for a physiological correlate of this finite resource led to the suggestion that it’s glucose. In their 2012 book, Baumeister and Tierney put it starkly – “No glucose, no willpower.”

    They’d shown that drinking a glucose drink helped people stay on-task as if their willpower were refreshed. But now that idea is being challenged by a series of new experiments. These show that merely gargling a sweet glucose drink is enough to restore performance. No glucose is ingested, but instead the glucose is probably binding to oral receptors, which stimulates motivational and reward pathways in the brain.

    I think these new findings about glucose complement the studies by Job, Dweck and others at Stanford because they all show how much willpower is about motivation. To believe that willpower is finite and that a challenge will drain your willpower levels is to take a passive perspective. The task is going to leave me fatigued and I have no choice but to become progressively more tired. In contrast, realising that willpower is something that is generated from within, based on attitude and task engagement, is to take a far more active stance. It’s not magic or woo woo, it’s just recognising that willpower is a lot to do with attitude, with motivation, and how you construe the work challenges that confront you. Adopting this perspective won’t make you superman or woman, but it can be empowering and beneficial to remember that your attitude and approach plays a big part in how you will perform over time. It’s not only about the task wearing you down, it’s just as much about you marshalling your reserves to get to it.

  • Chris Martin

    This is a really minor point, but Job is at Zurich, not Stanford.

  • Christian Jarrett

    thanks Chris – we’ll get that fixed. (It’s her co-workers, including Carol Dweck, who are at Stanford)

  • Hana Horack-Elyafi

    Hmm, just wondering…where does the will-power required to stop smoking, or give up drugs, or to be disciplined to do your five daily prayers if you are Muslim come from? I don’t think gargling glucose, or ingesting it will be of much assistance in any of the above situations…although it might give you a short “up!”

    Will power is only limited by our mind and our psychological state – some people buckle and some people thrive. Our belief plays a key role in all this as shown by your research quoted in this article and in the one about rejection. What we believe forms our world…and that is not just a truism, I think that it is a fundamental that we need to think about deeply and then to act on. Hmmmm…..

  • Asbjørn Asmussen

    What about success/failure? Attitude is one thing – and sure it is important – but in my experience the one thing that really build up my energy most is my successes. Failures on the other hand makes me tired.
    So I have a rather practical approach to the willpower issue: simply lay out my daily tasks in a way that will succeed. That’s an act of planning and breaking down projects into smaller tasks that I know I can manage. Thats how I keep up my energy and willpower.

  • Piotr Prokopowicz

    Well, yes, but it seems that only one of these two actually deplete your willpower;)

  • Piotr Prokopowicz

    I think it’s problematic to think about this as a one-variable problem. Of course our beliefs matter – they almost always do – but saying that willpower is only ilmited by our mind simply contradicts a couple of decades of solid psychological research. Willpower does work like a muscle, and yes, it can be depleted by highly engagint mental tasks, but it’s no surprise that this can be, to a certain extent, modified by our beliefs about willpoer.

  • Hana Horack-Elyafi

    Yes you are right, I didn’t mean to be quite so categorical about willpower :) But I certainly don’t think of it as a purely biological ‘muscle.’ I think our beliefs about the world in general, and about our place in creation have a lot of influence on how we are able to keep going, especially in the face of adversity.

  • Hana Horack-Elyafi

    Yes! This works for me too – I used to cycle up a very steep hill, if I looked up the hill while cycling it seemed insurmountable, but if I kept my eyes on the ground I could persuade myself that there was no hill, sure enough that hill flew past ;)

  • fly

    I’ll probably sound very stupid, but I don’t understand the difference between motivation and willpower. Well, I think they’re very similar…

    What makes motivation more scientific?

  • Marisa Swanson

    Great article! Comments on here are always fun to read, no matter what they say, and I would never mean to denigrate anyone’s intelligence or intimate knowledge of the subject, but kind of feel like it’s being a bit over-parsed here. Think of it intuitively without asking yourself “but what is ‘motivation'”? And “What does ‘challenge’ really mean?” We all know what it’s like to sail through something that feels easy versus plodding through something that feels difficult.

    Overall, I think the message is the difference between thinking “I only have so much energy any one day to do my work vs. the harder something seems, the higher my energy levels rise, and the more determined I am to do it, and do it well.” The second mindset is obvs going to aid in productivity compared to the first.

  • missdk

    I agree completely. I find that willpower is a poor substitute for self-discipline.

  • Ashlee Perry

    I really agree with this. My best work has come from viewing a task as an exciting challenge. My worst has come from losing momentum and confidence I can do it, usually from someone standing over my shoulder pointing out the potential for failure. Willpower has a lot to do with muting those thoughts as much as possible. Negativity really crushes endurance in my experience. I agree with the bike/hill analogy from Hana – if you don’t focus on the hill, but focus on your breathing, your cycling, the things you can control – you’ll be at the top before you know it.

  • Phil Kvasnica

    Thanks Christian, I think we can all benefit from this….tricking our minds to believe we can do something better than we feel we can, or have more energy to do something than we think we have. I know I can benefit from it. It just takes convincing your mind. Like Mr. Asmussen says, “Attitude”. Also, if you add up the values of each letter in “Attitude” (a=1, z=26) they will total 100. So, attitude = 100%. Thank you for the good reminder.

  • Joje

    I think the article is meant to only scratches the surface, if you consider it’s an article on the internet on a self-help website.

  • DJ Epiphany

    Superb article, Christian. It’s really down to our perception of things we do and know, isn’t it? I find this not only applicable to willpower but to other endeavors in my life as well. I’m gonna read your book “The Rough Guide to Psychology” because this article has convinced me that you must have lots of things in your head that are very interesting to me. Thank you!

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