I thought this was interesting:

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals…[P]eople who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.

So exercising willpower in one area can deplete willpower in another.  No wonder I have such a donut problem when I’m on deadline.

In a way, this simply confirms a common-sense understanding of human behavior:  people have only so much attention to give.  Which is one reason I’ve been concerned for a long time about the all-too-common idea that personal choices are key to solving major environmental and social problems.  Not only does the “personal choice” frame reduce the perceived importance of systemic and political change—which I think are more effective—but if willpower is truly a zero-sum game, then counting on continual vigilance and unwavering will seems like a losing strategy.

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  • That said, there’s an upside to making the “right choice” as often as you can:

    Willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use…

    Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower—and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.

    Could this put a new wrinkle in, say, the paper-vs-plastic debate?

    I’ve long maintained that paper-vs-plastic is small potatoes:  on any given grocery run, what you put into your bag is at least 100 times more important than what kind of bag you take it home in.  In the same vein—homes, cars, and appliances all loom far larger than paper-vs-plastic.  But if you believe this research, all of the willpower we devote to bag choices could actually be harmful to our other eco-minded decisions:  it could sap our willpower when it comes time to make the more important choices about where to live & what to drive.

    But perhaps that’s the short term perspective.  When you look over the long haul, it could be that choosing the right kind of bag isn’t a distraction.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s more like a warm-up exercise for the will, giving us the mental fortitude to pursue loftier goals.  Given the enormous amount of our eco-mindspace that’s taken up by bag choices, I certainly hope so.