Willpower (and Chicken Gumbo)

Earlier this week, Sam made chicken gumbo for dinner. It didn’t turn out completely to his liking, so I won’t bother to post the recipe. Nonetheless, it was tasty. He likes his food super spicy, so he split the recipe across two pots. His had copious amounts of ancho chile peppers (it was supposed to be green chile peppers, but we only had ancho chiles on hand) and Frank’s hot sauce, the pot he made for me had much less of the hot stuff. But, since I’m not sharing the recipe, chicken gumbo isn’t the topic of this post. As you’ve probably already surmised from the title, the topic of this post is willpower.


Wikipedia refers to willpower as “self-discipline, training and control of oneself and one’s conduct, usually for personal improvement.” I was going to give you the Oxford English Dictionary definition, but it only provided me with the following quote: “The drunkard..whose will-power and whose moral force have been conquered by degraded appetite.” Well, the Latin phrase in vino veritas doesn’t exist for nothing, I guess.

But back to willpower. Apparently, some believe (and some research supports) the idea that we only have a limited amount of willpower. Furthermore, the efforts of continuing to exercise willpower can lead to willpower depletion. Unfortunately for those of us who wish we had more willpower, the mechanisms behind willpower depletion are not well-understood. One’s ability to exert willpower can be affected by something as simple as glucose levels or as complex as attitudes and beliefs. For example, people who believe that willpower is a limited resource are more likely to experience willpower depletion (Job 2010)*.

Because I often feel like I’m on the brink of willpower depletion myself,  I know that I can only commit myself to a limited number of projects. Otherwise, I’d be setting myself up for failure. Right now, my 365 Project of working on my dissertation on a daily basis is project numero uno. Devoting myself to work on it every day is certainly a test of my willpower, but I think it would have been a bigger test of my willpower had I not made this commitment. Today marks the 11th day of my 365 Project, and I’d be lying if I said I would have worked on my dissertation for more than half of the past 11 days if I hadn’t made it a daily requirement.

There have been a few positive aspects about removing the optional nature of working on my dissertation each day. First, it has made it easier to be motivated, at least so far. It’s just something that I know I have to do, and I don’t allow myself to relax until it’s been completed. Second, because I’ve made a conscious effort to think about my dissertation every day, the cost of working on it each time is lower. If I’ve learned one thing in graduate school, it’s that longer periods of time between working on a paper mean that each time you do work on it, you have to spend significant time reacquainting yourself with your work. Knowing that I have to reacquaint myself with a project encourages me to procrastinate more, which is something I cannot afford if I ever want to graduate.

Of course, there’s been a negative aspect to this 365 project, too. Though I recognize that I’ve been successful in my goal thus far, I still wish that I were focusing my attention on something else. I’m sacrificing a lot of things that are important for the sake of finishing my degree. I know it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Maybe as the year progresses, I’ll find ways to improve my willpower and I’ll be able to devote more time and effort to my other goals. Or maybe I won’t, but I’ll have made awesome progress on my dissertation (oh please, let me make awesome progress either way). I suppose progress comes at a cost, eh?

Whether or not my willpower improves, there are a lot of obstacles to come. I haven’t yet reached the point where I hate my dissertation, but according to others’ experiences, it’s coming. Over the next year, as I confront (and hopefully overcome) various obstacles, I know that I’ll be continually examining my own willpower and self-discipline. I’ll consider and reconsider my motivations for why I’m continuing to work on a dissertation when there are days when I’m seriously considering quitting graduate school completely. I hope that when those days come, the positive effects of embarking on this 365 Project continue.

*See the short info sheet Is Willpower a Limited Resource by the American Psychological Association for a primer on the current research on willpower and for the Job (2010) citation.

PS – this is my 100th post on this blog! Yay!


3 thoughts on “Willpower (and Chicken Gumbo)

  1. Jackie says:

    I love that you cited a source. And that you’re still chugging along! It’s hard to think of all the things you could be doing in place of this but that’s also the beauty of it; once you’re done you’ll realize that you can pick anything at all to work on and do it every day. That’s a powerful and incredibly effective tool. Rooting for you!

  2. Jackie says:

    It’s hard to think of all the other things you could be doing in place of this but that’s also part of the joy; when you comets this daunting task you’ll realize that if you did this you can do anything. Then you get to pick the thing you want to embark on next and know with full confidence that it’s only a matter of time before it improves 🙂 I’m rooting for you!

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