The Hot-Cold Gap: How We Set Ourselves Up For Willpower Failure

It’s Sunday night. You’ve just had a fun, relaxing weekend and you’re planning the week ahead. You have a cool, focused vision of how the week will pan out. You’re going to eat better, get up earlier, and tackle that big project.

Fast forward to mid-week. It’s the end of a long, stressful day of work and all of the sudden that cool, calm, decision-making process is gone. It’s replaced by a sense of panic as you go over your dinner options. You feel like there’s no way you can summon the willpower to cook a healthy dinner, and that takeout menu is looking extra tempting….

This phenomenon happens to all of us. When we’re in a cool, calm and focused state of mind, we assume that in all of our future decisions we’re going to be in that exact same state of mind. Of course, we know that this isn’t true. When we’re in that stressed, tired, and tempted state we have far less resolve to exert our willpower and make the right decision. The difference between these two states of mind is known as the “Hot-Cold Empathy Gap”.


As humans, we are incredibly optimistic about our own willpower and resolve [1]. When we imagine our future selves, it’s almost like we’re imagining a super hero. We envision someone who laughs in the face of temptation, someone who has boundless energy and unlimited time to boot. This is why when we plan New Year’s resolutions we set impossible standards to live up to. When we plan our future, we’re often in this “cool” state of mind and assume that our future selves will have the exact same mindset. 

Unfortunately, we're not super heroes. We get stressed. We get tired. We get emotional. And we get into a “hot” state of mind, where typical reason and self-discipline stand little chance against our impulses. When we’re in this state, our decision-making is skewed and it’s harder to make the right choice. [2]


One of the biggest drains to our willpower is simply in the decision-making itself. Anyone who’s ever contemplated a major decision; such as changing careers, ending a long-term relationship or firing someone, knows the toll that decision can take on our energy and focus. Going through the decision-making process expends our energy and, ironically, leaves us even less willpower to make the right decision. [3]


When Starbucks was going through it’s massive expansion, it faced a lot of growing pains. The biggest, was the ability to ensure that the mass influx of new employees received proper training and provided excellent customer service. For many employees, Starbucks is their first job. They haven’t had to deal with a packed line or an angry customer before. Even though they all wanted to do a good job when they were in their “cool” state of mind, as soon as the “heat” was turned up, many of them snapped at customers – or snapped at each other. 

To help employees deal with those situations, Starbucks came up with a simple solution – preloaded decision-making. They added an extra page at the end of every employee handbook which had lines like, “When a customer yells at me I will ______”. The employee would then write in advance what their response would be to this and many other tough situations. It allowed employees to plan their response with a cool mindset, so they didn’t need to think as much under pressure and risk losing their self-control. [4]


When the heat is turned up in our lives, our self-control and rational decision-making processes take a major hit. By preloading decisions for how we should react when we are inevitably in a tempted, tired, or high-pressure situation, it is much easier for us to simply follow the plan we have in place.

When you’re coming up with a goal to eat better, read more often, or wake up earlier, preload the decision that you want to make when facing temptations. Understand that you are going to be put in those situations where it will take a lot of willpower to act, so give your future self some assistance by planning how you will deal with temptations ahead of time.


We are an eternally optimistic species. When we have time to focus and plan, we believe that our future selves will have a superhero-like resolve. But when we’re tired, stressed and staring temptation in the face, this resolve is often nowhere to be found.

However, by understanding that we will be tired, we will be stressed and we will be tempted, we can help our future selves by preloading decisions that will help us get through our “hot” state of mind. So hope for the best, but plan for the worst, for the sake of both you and your future self!


  1. Sharot, Tali. "The Optimism Bias." Ted Talks. Long Beach. Speech
  2. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
  3. Vohs, Kathleen D., Roy F. Baumeister, Brandon J. Schmeichel, Jean M. Twenge, Noelle M. Nelson, and Dianne M. Tice. "Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-control: A Limited-resource Account of Decision Making, Self-regulation, and Active Initiative." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5 (2008): 883-98
  4. Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.