Are You Hitting Your Limit, or Getting Stronger? The Power of Reinterpreting Mental Effort

Listen to your elders, they say. Well, I wasn’t sure what to think when as a seven-year-old I sat in the kitchen and listened to my grandpa. On the table in front of us was a big bag of assorted candy. He polished them all off, piece after piece. “Does Mom know about this?” I sat there wondering. As though sensing my disbelief, he explained with a slightly defensive but definitive tone, “I have a sweet tooth.” I was perplexed. Was a sweet tooth something you “had”? Was it permanent? Did I have one?

Years later, I realized my grandfather was performing a kind of mental gymnastics to attribute his indulgence to an inherent part of his identity. Eating copious sugary snacks was easier to justify that way. He likely thought to himself, I’ve always liked sweets. That’s just who I am. So why bother even trying to resist?

The implication here was that any effort he could exert to resist the candy, or curb his temptation, would be futile. Without even realizing it, his interpretation of effort—as a signal of reaching his personal self-regulation limit—led him to eat every piece of candy. And he isn’t alone. A powerful determinant of self-regulation—our ability to do the things we know we should do—is how we interpret effort.

A powerful determinant of self-regulation—our ability to do the things we know we should do—is how we interpret effort.

The ways we interpret effort can differ subtly. For example, Sirisha may view the experience of effort as a sign that she has hit her limit (like my grandpa), while Courtney may interpret a similar experience of effort as a sign that she’s developing her ability to self-regulate. In other words, she’s strengthening her self-discipline. The variations in these interpretations may have meaningful consequences for these two women. One may be more likely to quit, while the other one keeps on trying.

Doing the things we know we ought to do often requires effort. So how can we interpret it in a way that will help us persevere?

My colleagues and I recently conducted several studies suggesting that a growth mindset of self-regulation is a promising tool for enhancing perseverance, particularly in contexts that require sustained effort. Although extensive research has examined the effects of a growth mindset in other contexts, like how we view intelligence, surprisingly little research has examined this mindset in the context of self-regulation.

In our research, we hypothesized that this particular mindset would increase individuals’ persistence on challenging tasks, partially because of how it would affect the way they viewed the effort exerted to complete these tasks.

In one study, we examined the effects of a growth mindset of self-regulation on effort and perseverance in an intensive intervention design. We randomly assigned 75 participants to one of two 6-week courses that either covered how to develop a growth mindset of self-regulation or taught interpersonal strategies to enhance relationships (the control group). Relative to the control condition, the growth mindset of self-regulation course led participants to persist for longer when trying to solve challenging puzzles. This was partially driven by a change in their appraisal of mental effort. Those who learned about a growth mindset began to view their mental effort as a sign of expansion rather than a sign of hitting their limit, which inspired them to persevere. Using an experience sampling method where participants were pinged with questions on their phones several times per day, these participants also reported noticing more opportunities for self-control in daily life, and an overall increase in successfully resisting everyday temptations.

A growth mindset of self-regulation is a promising tool for enhancing perseverance, particularly in contexts that require sustained effort.

In a separate study, we substantially condensed the intervention and randomly assigned 112 participants to read an article either describing self-regulation as an innate skill that was largely immutable (fixed mindset) or as a trainable skill that strengthens with practice (growth mindset). The articles were created by our research team but were presented as having been drawn from the popular magazine Scientific American, to increase their persuasiveness. Compared to those in the fixed mindset condition, participants who learned about a growth mindset of self-regulation persisted on challenging puzzles for longer, and this effect was driven by appraisals of effort—specifically, the belief that effortful self-control is a useful process for developing an underlying ability to persevere.

We then wondered whether this mindset would affect the degree to which individuals opt in for challenging, effortful tasks. To examine this, we randomly assigned participants to read about a growth or fixed mindset of self-regulation and then, in a paradigm called the Demand Selection Task, measured how often each individual chose easy or challenging math problems. Across two studies, participants who had just read about a growth mindset of self-regulation were more likely to opt in for challenging subtraction problems compared to their fixed mindset counterparts. These studies suggest that our beliefs about self-regulation may not only influence our persistence on the challenging tasks put in front of us but they may also motivate us to seek out challenge.

This research calls into question a long-held explanation for self-regulatory failure. In the 1990s, Roy Baumeister and colleagues began to profoundly shape the way scientists and the general public viewed the topic. They proposed that all forms of self-regulation, whether it be exercising rather than watching television or staying calm when aggravated, rely on a shared, limited resource. Therefore, engaging in any kind of self-regulatory behavior “depletes” a general capacity of resources, making any subsequent attempts more difficult, at least in the short term. That is, resisting tempting cookies would consumes one’s limited capacity of self-regulatory resources, and could make it more difficult to then manage one’s emotions, even though this type of control involves a completely different domain. In accord, previous interventions that aimed to improve self-regulation have often focused on ways to conserve or increase one’s finite capacity.

This research calls into question a long-held explanation for self-regulatory failure.

In contrast, the present findings support a growing body of literature that challenges this theory by showing that people’s beliefs shape their self-regulation. For example, Veronika Job and colleagues have examined what they call a non-limited theory of willpower, the belief that self-regulation is self-sustaining rather than depleting. Across many studies, this belief about willpower has had implications for how people interpret and respond to experiences of effort.

Although our two theories are similar, they are also distinct. Job’s theory is about whether self-regulation produces feelings of “momentum” that facilitate goal pursuit once it has begun. In contrast, a growth mindset focuses on the malleability and expansion of overall abilities for self-regulation as a function of practice and effort over time. Jobs’s willpower theory operates on a shorter timescale than a growth mindset, and a growth mindset places a stronger emphasis on the value—and necessity—of effort for achieving growth. Together, these lines of work indicate that underlying beliefs can significantly change how we appraise the meaning of our effort and, consequently, how we allocate it.

This strategy of developing a growth mindset of self-regulation may be useful for those of us who have a tendency to justify behaviors that we know aren’t good for us, particularly by telling ourselves, That’s just part of who I am. Maybe you know someone who believes it’s nearly impossible to get to the gym, or perhaps someone who believes their compulsive tendency to check social media is just part of who they are. These fixed mindsets likely affect how they perceive the effort required to curb the habits they hope to overcome.

A growth mindset of self-regulation is a change of perspective that helps you recognize how every individual act of restraint is a step toward a greater capacity for self-regulation. Your effort becomes a sign of progress.