Do You Believe You Have an Abundance of Discipline?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
January 21, 2017

Research helps explain how “believing you can” makes it possible.  

For decades, researchers have been playing with the idea that self-discipline is a limited resource — like gas in a car tank. You can use it up and have to refuel. So if you're on a strict diet, it might be harder to tackle annoying paperwork or keep to your gym schedule or be patient with a difficult customer. That idea makes intuitive sense to many people. As we get older especially, we learn that we can tire ourselves out. We believe that when things are especially tough, people who see their energy and willpower as limited are better at judging what they can do and focusing on what’s important.

But newer studies have found that thinking you can do it all — and can respond to ever tougher challenges — may lead you towards more accomplishment. "Believe it and you can be it," as the saying goes.


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Common sense suggests that some of us are probably inclined to overly high expectations, and others need to boost their faith in themselves. What’s more true for you?  

To test the question, researchers at Stanford and the University of Zurich had students at the selective U.S. school answer online questionnaires once a week for 5 weeks in the second half of their school term, when demands tend to be most intense. Among students who faced high demands, those who saw willpower as limited were more likely to eat junk food, procrastinate, arrive late, overspend, and lose their temper. Students who seemed to score lower on self-control up front screwed up the most. But their beliefs still made a difference considered statistically significant.

Grades for the term showed the same pattern. Among students who took a heavy course load, those who believed their discipline could be exhausted earned lower grades because they were more likely to procrastinate.

When students had an easier course load, even students who believed they had unlimited discipline gave in to impulses, maybe even more so. Those students actually tended to earn higher grades when they took more courses. This suggests, the authors write, that these students are the kind who underperform when they’re under-challenged.

It’s possible that the students who saw their willpower as limited were more pessimistic and fearful, sabotaging themselves with an exaggerated idea of the challenges, rather than too narrow a view of their own abilities. So the researchers investigated whether anticipation or fearfulness was the problem and concluded that it wasn't.  

How can we use this information? If you're a parent, encourage your children to believe they can hold and live up to high standards across the board. Don't present discipline as trade-offs, as in "Yeah sure it's okay to leave your room a mess — you did lots of homework." Maybe the room isn't a big deal. But don't give them a pass on the room because they did the homework.

That also goes for you, and your health. Opt into health as a package deal, which includes a healthy diet, exercise, strength — building and de-stressing. Try taking steps in a few areas at the same time — especially with the support of a community. According to a report commissioned by the Community Preventive Services Task Force, people do much better at bringing their weight and blood sugar levels down in programs that promote both a healthy diet and more physical activity, with coaching and support for at least 3 months. You’re likely to keep up some of your new good habits even if you stop attending meetings. When researchers polled women age 40 and up who had participated in a group strength-training program over three months, nearly 80 percent were still working out regularly — on average, for more than a year, according to an April 2010 study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

Other research has backed up the promise you’ll hear from religious leaders, that believing in God is linked to greater self-control. Psychologist Roy Baumeister, the author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” who first popularized the idea of willpower as a resource, has concluded that believing in God works so well because it is tied to the idea of unlimited willpower.


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN