Deadlines, Work and Willpower

By Becky Craddock

You’ve been working on a piece of coursework for hours, and there is still more to do. The deadline is looming. You feel restless, and for some reason lack motivation, plus you figure “I’m worn out; I’ve got no motivation or desire to do this” and with it comes an excuse to justify your imminent procrastination: “I may as well stop because I can’t produce good work any more; I’ll just leave it there and do it later on sometime”. Many of us will be familiar with this situation. Unfortunately this excuse that your motivation has run out may have been blown out of the water by research into how your own opinion about the nature of willpower has an impact on your productivity.

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Research has found that your attitude about the nature of willpower (aka ability to use self-control) affects your actual experience of it. The traditional strength model of self-control states that using a lot of self-control leads to reduced self-control later on. This seems to make sense, as we have all felt a lack of motivation after working hard on a project. However contradictory research has found that this may not be the case, as a person’s attitude towards the nature of self-control/willpower can have a profound effect on their work performance.

When comparing people who believed willpower was a limited resource to people who believed it was unlimited, only those who believed it was limited went on to experience reduced performance on a second task. The more exhausted they felt, the more they reduced their effort, believing they did not have enough willpower left to complete the task at their maximum ability. For those who thought of willpower as unlimited, a demanding first task did not have any effect on how they did in a second task. In some cases, they actually performed better on the second task! To them, feeling worn out was not a sign to reduce their effort. In one part of the study, participants were told that performing a difficult task could improve their performance on a second task. You would think that this would reduce their willpower and subsequent effort in the second task, because they seemingly didn’t have to work as hard. Surprisingly, the participants did not experience a decrease in willpower on the second task!

What does this mean for me?

The research described above shows how important it is to be aware of your own attitudes to work and will power, especially if deadlines are looming. It seems that simply believing a different idea about working allowed the people in the study to achieve more. So remember: do not give in, your willpower to complete whatever work you need to do is under your control. Your attitudes will give you the power to succeed!

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