Learning Curve

The Science of Willpower and Exercising Power Over Your Will

Sarira A. Sadeghi

The Sam & Ash Director of Academic Achievement
Chapman University Fowler School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2020

Citation: Sarira A. Sadeghi, The Science of Willpower and Exercising Power Over Your Will, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2020)

​This community understands that the successful study of law requires the exercise of willpower—sometimes more than a student seemingly has. How can we help students harness their willpower and use it effectively?

“Willpower” is actually a form of self-control, or self-regulation.1While “self-control” is typically used in the context of refraining from doing something (e.g., not eating a brownie), it also governs the act or process of forcing ourselves to do something, particularly something undesirable (e.g., eating more kale instead of the brownie), while “losing” self-control is typically associated with giving in to something we should not do (e.g., eating a second brownie). In the context of law school, self-control might refer to the decision to not start a new Netflix series during a lunch break or to study one more hour instead of binge-watching a new show, while losing self-control might refer to giving in to binge-watching a show during lunch and turning the lunch break into an all-afternoon break. One of the essential jobs of an academic support professional is helping students understand how willpower functions and how they can regulate it.

The Science Behind Willpower
In 1998, Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues at Case Western University published a landmark study on self-control, finding that willpower is a limited resource. The theory posits that, in any given day, we have a finite supply of willpower: as we expend willpower throughout the day, we exhaust our supply, thereby diminishing our ability to make difficult choices (or self-regulate) as the day proceeds.3 Although this is the prevailing theory, it is not a settled one. In the years since, there have been many studies that have either corroborated or refuted the theory that willpower is a finite resource, while other new theories and studies about how willpower functions have emerged. One more recent idea is that willpower acts as a muscle that can become fatigued, while another suggests that willpower acts as an emotion.

Each theory agrees, however, that the exercise of willpower is not constant: some tasks or choices require greater self-control than others, while some tasks require exponentially more willpower at one time of the day than another. For example, it may require more willpower to take a performance test than to answer a set of multiple choice questions, and it may take more willpower to do a performance test in the afternoon than it would have to do it in the morning. The more willpower we must exercise, the less we have to access later. Accordingly, willpower must be consciously nurtured if it is to be exercised and managed effectively. Fortunately, the process of managing willpower is essentially the same across all theories.

Imagine a student taking a break by watching their favorite show on a streaming platform such as Netflix. Netflix, like most streaming platforms, automatically plays subsequent episodes. If willpower is considered a limited resource, the act of consciously ending or stopping the next episode—pressing stop, closing the app, etc.—demands an exercise of self-control; when the show is one of your favorites, turning it off to resume a less desirable task, such as outlining joinder or making sense of the rule  against perpetuities, demands an even greater expenditure of willpower.

If willpower is limited, that increased expenditure depletes that resource more quickly, leaving the student with less willpower to outline longer, read a case a second time, make sense of a particularly dense passage, push to study another hour, and so on. Students may feel they need a limitless supply of self-control to be successful in law school, but if self-control is an inherently limited resource, every extraneous expenditure has real cost.

If willpower is a muscle, the impact is virtually identical: detaching from something that floods our brains with dopamine—like watching Jim’s pranks, or babies-eating-lemons videos—requires us to flex that willpower/self-control muscle more vigorously. This causes muscle (willpower) fatigue, and we lose the ability to do heavy lifting as the day wears on.

The third theory speculates that willpower functions like an emotion in that we do not run out of willpower any more than we run out joy or anger, but that willpower itself is a dependent emotion that increases or wanes in correlation to how we feel about what we are faced with.9 Accordingly, our ability to exercise self-control is not limited by capacity; rather, it is a function of motivation.10 One upside to this theory, if it proves correct, is that willpower would not be a limited resource that can be depleted; rather, a person’s lack of motivation can be managed and might be only temporary, especially if the emotion is handled properly.

Positive emotions are those that result from a pleasurable experience and require little effort or focus; conversely, “negative emotions require more cognitive resources to be allocated for dealing with the given situation.” While emotions are often categorized as one or the other, research—and human experience—tells us that some emotions are both, or that experiencing an emotion on one end of the spectrum can have consequences on the other. For example, graduation may be both happy and sad, or anger can have a positive impact on performance while happiness can result in apathy.The exercise of willpower, if it is an emotion, can also be both positive and negative: when properly motivated, willpower can feel positive and less strenuous (e.g., positive results after working out may make a person more willing or eager for future workouts), while having to perform a task we are less emotionally motivated to do will make the exercise of willpower more challenging (e.g., logically understanding that outlining is essential to understanding but being intellectually paralyzed at where to start, creating an emotional response of lack of willpower). While the former is ideal, the exercise of willpower more often falls to the latter. Further, expending willpower is effectively a deprivation of what we want, either because it is something we should not do or have (e.g. an extra brownie), or because there is something better for us that we should do or have instead (e.g. fresh fruit instead of the brownie). In either scenario, in that instant, the expenditure of willpower feels like a deprivation and does not, by itself, result in immediate joy. Although the consequence of expending willpower may result in positive emotions when the desired goal is achieved, that delayed gratification is often of little help in the moment. Further, experiencing the perceived deprivation in that moment can fuel other negative thoughts and emotions, all contributing to emotional (willpower) fatigue.

A student’s lack of motivation or willpower can also be instructive as to other emotions, or even cognitive dissonance, that the student might be struggling with. A student may struggle with willpower because of an issue with the material. Intellectual challenges in law school often generate feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome, as well as stress, anxiety, and depression. When students know they do not understand something, like estates in land, they generally want to avoid it and, therefore, must use more willpower to address it. Being aware of the underlying emotional issues of why a person may feel less inclined to do specific types of work is critical to being able to manage them.

Additionally, the willpower-as-an-emotion theory states that willpower is also dependent on other emotions. The stress of law school often generates anxiety in students that can be overwhelming, feeding other negative emotions, and even parallel depressive episodes: students may be overwhelmed by everything they must do or when faced with challenging material; they may believe they are the only ones struggling so much and feel isolated from their peers; they may detach from their classmates so no one will realize how much they are struggling; they may become angry with themselves for working so hard but feeling like they have not gained sufficient understanding or improvement in their learning;

they may become depressive and want detach from school as a whole; they may want to dull these feelings with alcohol or drugs. All these feelings and impulses generate more negative emotions that feed on each other and consequently lead to a decrease in willpower. Unfortunately, not utilizing willpower can also have a detrimental effect. When students are unable to motivate and use their time effectively, they might develop a defeatist mindset, asking what is wrong with them, questioning whether they belong in law school, or creating self-fulfilling prophesies of weak performance.
Fortunately, much of what we already recommend to students is exactly what they can and should do to manage willpower or engage in self-regulation. Framing these same tools and suggestions and a method for managing willpower can reach some students in a different and powerful way.
How We Can Manage Willpower
Regardless of the source of willpower, its limitation is the same across all three theories: in periods of high demand (i.e., every day of law school), students may find they have less willpower, self-control, or motivation than necessary to achieve what is required. Accordingly, regardless of the underlying theory, students must employ strategies to minimize the need to access willpower in the first place so that the supply is there, the muscle is relaxed, or the emotion is primed, when the time comes to call on it.One important strategy is to develop good habits so that studying and learning is less about drawing on willpower and more an expectation or basic function: doing the dishes can require copious amounts of willpower while brushing your teeth requires little because it is a habit. We often talk to our students about building good habits, but students can benefit from knowing the “why”: building healthy study routines and habits diminishes the exercise of willpower to perform necessary tasks. For students, that might mean keeping a regular sleep schedule; “treating law school like a job”; implementing a consistent study schedule; or building in a certain amount of practice each week. Healthy study routines also include surrounding themselves with positive influences, friends, or study groups that encourage accountability or distancing themselves from negative ones that promote socializing; breaking tasks into manageable pieces; and taking productive breaks, e.g., a walk around the block rather than scrolling Instagram. Accordingly, when willpower must be employed, the reserve is not exhausted, the muscle is not fatigued, or the emotion has been nurtured.We also talk to our students about effective study strategies and skills development. We teach them how to read and brief a case, how to outline, how to analyze, how to take law school exams. When students struggle with material, we recommend strategies like breaking the material into manageable pieces, incorporating different studying tools and techniques, building in practice, and asking for help. We remind them that what helped them be successful before law school might not be the same as what they need to be successful now. These are critical strategies for success and can also be linked directly to willpower: when students employ these techniques, they not only gain understanding of the law but also confidence in their ability to be a successful law student that, in turn, generates more motivation to continue forward. We’ve seen this in our own offices while guiding a student through a hypo and witnessing their “ah-ha” moment. Helping the student understand from a skills perspective what they just did and why it was effective, and connecting it to their practice and preparation for other classes, generates motivation to move forward and try these strategies with new doctrines, requiring less willpower to do what they should– and hopefully would – have done anyway.

The emotional challenges generated in law school often mirror anxiety and depression; accordingly, it is unsurprising that many of our recommendations for these challenges mirror non-medicinal treatments for anxiety and depression: take a walk, engage in meaningful self-care, exercise, eat well, sleep well, engage with family and the community.

When they need a break, do not turn on Netflix or engage in “mindless” activities that are akin to curling up on the metaphorical couch and detaching from their surroundings and stressors. While tempting, those kinds of breaks can be detrimental because returning to the studying/learning tasks that the student was taking a break from requires a greater expenditure of willpower and can actually feed the cycle of anxiety and negative thoughts or emotions when a student struggles to refocus. When students hear this framing of why they should not watch Dwight woo Angela over their lunch break, they largely nod their heads and admit that one episode inevitably turns into three, and they have a much harder time focusing when they do return to their studies. They become much more open to the suggestion that they should, instead, choose activities that allow for a break from the studying without feeding their anxieties, avoidance mechanisms, or cycle of negative emotions, which create an opportunity cost that demands more willpower to reengage with that studying.

They become more open to suggestions such as walking around the block, chatting with a friend, sharing difficult feelings, planning healthy meals for the rest of the week, or meditating for a few minutes.
Recommendations like these help students maintain a positive mindset through the challenge and rigor of law school, as well as help manage motivation. In turn, the students require less willpower to engage in the requisite learning and tasks.

What We Do With This Information
None of these suggestions are new to anyone in this community, and we all understand that students respond better when they understand the “why.” Unfortunately, when we tell students that they should employ these suggestions “because they are good learning strategies or techniques,” they instead hear “because I told you so.” Explaining the brain science behind certain recommendations or pedagogies helps at least some students adopt the recommendations or adapt to them. While I have made these types of suggestions to my students throughout my time as an academic support professional, I ultimately found that students were more inclined to internalize those same recommendations once I began explaining the brain science supporting them, and contextualizing them in their own experiences. They began to recognize the cognitive effects I described, and realize that those experiences were not something that was happening to them, but rather something they could exercise control over. Sharing this information with our students arms them with information that can help them make better choices to support their learning or, at the very least, help them understand the choices they are making. Explaining the science of how something as small and as seemingly harmless as watching an episode of “The Office” during a lunch break can disrupt the rest of the day’s productivity seems to resonate deeply with students as they recall the challenge of exercising self-control to stop streaming and return to the commerce clause. They begin to consider more productive methods of taking breaks, managing their studying and motivation, and utilizing their time. Just as step-counters and nutrition apps provide information that can help people make more informed decisions about their physical health, arming our students with the science of willpower can help them make better choices regarding their academic health.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments