Willpower Depletion & Resisting Cravings

“I have been my own disciple and my own master. And I have been a good disciple but a bad master.” – Antonio Porchia

You know the feeling… it’s the end of a long and stressful day and you’ve been trying your hardest to stick to your diet or resolution all day long. But now, you are completely exhausted and feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. What difference will “just one” cupcake, drink, cigarette, or any other vice really make? It can’t really hurt just this once, right? If you have ever had a similar experience to this, you are not alone. What’s more, research now confirms what you may have suspected for some time: willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted through time and use.

Throughout the day, we are regularly bombarded with desires to do things that have the potential to sidetrack us from reaching our most cherished goals. These desires are not limited to activities such as eating, drinking, or smoking (things that can easily become harmful vices). Willpower can be tested throughout the day when you notice yourself feeling tempted to check your e-mail “one more time” or “just see what’s happening” on Facebook or some other social media website.

Take a moment to consider what behaviors you find yourself feeling tempted to act on throughout a typical day. Notice what times of day these behaviors are especially difficult to resist. For example, you may observe that it is much more challenging to avoid late night snacks or that you find yourself particularly interested in Facebook when you have a looming task that you have been avoiding. We all have vices, they just tend to manifest themselves in different ways with different people.

In a recent study of desire regulation, 205 adult participants wore devices that recorded 7,827 reports on their daily desires. Researchers found that desires for sleep and sex were the strongest of all, while desires to use media and to work proved the most difficult to resist. Do you find this surprising? Many people may be under the impression that alcohol and tobacco would be more difficult to resist, given their potential to be addictive. Surprisingly enough, desires associated with tobacco and alcohol were the weakest (according to this study).

Lead author of the study, Wilhelm Hofmann, comments on the problematic nature of the intense desires for sleep and leisure, which suggest “pervasive tension between natural inclinations to rest and relax and the multitude of work and other obligations.” Consider the implications of desires for sleep or sex being the strongest, while desires to use media and to work being the most difficult to resist. It is almost as if we may be caught in a bit of an internal war with ourselves to find against our naturally powerful desires, while having intense difficulty avoiding succumbing to getting work done and using media.

This study also supported past research that has found that the more often and recently someone has resisted a desire, the less successful that person will be at resisting any subsequent desire. For example, imagine that you have spent the majority of your day sticking to a strict diet, biting your tongue when coworkers get on your nerves, holding back from getting angry at a careless driver, avoiding going to the restroom during multiple long meetings, and then finally you get home… exhausted. At this point in the day, you may have successfully exerted your willpower many times, yet the consequence is that you have very little willpower remaining. What this means is that you are much more likely to have that last slice of cake in the refrigerator or to snap at your partner when he or she says something that bothers you.

Once you truly understand that your willpower is a finite resource that becomes gradually depleted throughout the day, you can begin to take steps toward managing it more effectively. Consider how the previous scenario may result in your being less likely to eat that slice of cake or snap at your partner if you were to approach the situation a bit differently. Perhaps you recognize you have had a draining day and ask your partner to give you 20 minutes alone to relax and unwind when you first get home. Or maybe you have planned ahead to have a healthy snack ready for you later in the evening so that it appears much more wise in contrast to that slice of cake.

This different, potentially less problematic scenario, involves actively adopting an attitude of mindfulness. It means being in touch with your bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions, and making wise choices based on that self-knowledge. Mindfulness means slowing down and observing your experience in the present moment… not rushing from point A to point B with a steady buzz of static in your mind and a racing heart in your chest. All it takes to begin to become more mindful is to notice yourself feeling overwhelmed in the moment and make the conscious choice to slow things down and take a few deep breaths.

The next time that you notice yourself in a similar scenario, feeling drained and exhausted after a long day of exerting willpower, make the decision to approach the situation differently than you normally would. Allow yourself the gift of tuning in to your experience and acknowledging however drained you may feel. Accept your current thoughts, sensations, and emotions in the present moment. Settle into the moment and just breathe.

Ask your loved ones to give you whatever time or space you may need to begin to feel more calm, relaxed, and replenished. Communicate openly with people in your life and let them know that allowing you space to become centered enables you to have more harmonious relationships with them (i.e., you are not shutting them out).

Plan ahead for situations where you know your willpower will be drained and try not to go overboard with overusing your willpower where it may not be needed. How might your typical day begin to look and feel different if you were to approach the natural depletion of daily willpower with an open, curious, and accepting attitude of mindfulness?

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Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2012, January 30). Willpower and desires: Turning up the volume on what you want most. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2012/01/120130094353.htm

Featured image: Ice Cream Sundae Cupcakes by jamieanne / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on February 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    I also think it’s worthwhile, when one is considering how to affect change in oneself, to remember that, as you say, “willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted through time and use.”

    For example, the high rate of failure of New Year’s resolutions is known by all. Part of the reason for this is that people try to change too much at once. Each of these changes requires willpower and, with so much willpower being applied to so many resolutions at once, it should come as no surprise when none of the resolutions take root.

    As such, it’s far better to attempt to affect a single change at a time and apply one’s willpower to it until it becomes a habit; as habits require little, if any, willpower. Once one resolution has become a habit, one can then move on the to next resolution, and then the next, and so on. While this approach is not perfect, it will yield far better results in the vast majority of circumstances than trying to change several things at once.

    • Laura on February 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      James – I appreciate your insight into the potential for failure when trying to change too many things “at once.” This seems like an easy way to set oneself up for failure and to potentially abandon goals for growth. It makes sense when thinking about willpower as a finite resource to consider how trying to change multiple things at the same time could result in a sense of rapid depletion of willpower. I almost imagine it as punching multiple holes into a gas tank or water balloon and watching it drain rapidly.

      I love thinking about how applying a more mindful and reasonable approach to making changes (through making them one at a time) can result in the formation of a habit. It is so true that habits (by their very nature) require little to no willpower. I imagine that people can easily become overwhelmed or even excited by thinking about making “lots” of positive changes in their lives. It seems useful to channel this excitement/energy into single-mindedly tackling one goal at a time. Thank you for your comment!

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