“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.” Charles Duhigg
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WILLPOWER
Almost every New Year’s Resolution ends in failure because people don’t understand the nature of habits, willpower, or how to improve them. People make a list of things they will do, lose weight, drink less, exercise more, reduce their credit card debt, and stop smoking.
They will look at their list and blame their lack of willpower when they should blame their list and their lack of focus. Our willpower is severely limited, and every demand for self-restraint draws from a single source. No one has enough willpower for that list. Sometimes a single willpower challenge will feel like one demand too many. “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Confucius
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WILLPOWER:
1) All your willpower demands draw from a single source.
2) The more simultaneous demands you place on your willpower, the quicker it depletes.
3) Our willpower is highest in the morning.
4) The best use of our willpower is to remove temptations.
5) Habits conserve our willpower.
1) ALL YOUR WILLPOWER DEMANDS DRAW FROM A SINGLE SOURCE
In your excitement to see quick results, you’ll be tempted to try to install two or three ambitious new habits at once. Don’t fall into that trap. It will dilute your focus and willpower. Numerous clinical studies have demonstrated that willpower is a finite resource that depletes with use.
Renowned clinical psychologist Roy Baumeister’s famous Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment coined the phrase “Ego Depletion” and birthed the modern concept of willpower as a finite resource that depletes with use. During the first part of the experiment, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and then taunted them further by showing them the source of the delicious aromas alongside other chocolate-flavored confections.
Some participants could indulge, but others, whose self-control was being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead. The participants were subsequently invited to participate in a supposedly unrelated test of persistence. The test involved solving complicated puzzles, which unbeknownst to the participants, had no solutions.
The group that didn’t have to exert self-control to resist the cookies averaged 20-minutes before giving up on the unsolvable puzzles. The radish-eaters gave up in less than half the time, averaging 8-minutes. This experiment and others like it have made the concept of ego depletion widely accepted by the psychological community.
Most of us want to develop more than one habit at a time. It takes a lot of self-control to ignore other habits we want to build to focus on just one. The great news is that we don’t have to. We can shrink the commitment and develop multiple habits simultaneously. The low willpower cost of mini habits means you can build numerous habits at once. The key is to keep your initial commitment small to reduce your subjective fatigue. You learn more about mini habits later.
2) THE MORE SIMULTANEOUS DEMANDS YOU PLACE ON YOUR WILLPOWER, THE QUICKER IT DEPLETES
Numerous ego-depletion studies examining the cause of peoples’ willpower failures have demonstrated the folly of taking on more than one willpower challenge at a time.
Unfortunately, that is precisely what most people do. People who resolve to quit smoking, begin a new diet and exercise program, and reduce their alcohol consumption concurrently tend to fail at all four endeavors.
All our willpower demands pull from a single source. If you have ever tried to adopt a new habit or break an old one, you know how much willpower it requires. You have only one supply of willpower to draw from, so every additional commitment undermines all the others. The willpower resources you allocate to one challenge limits the resources you can commit to the others, leaving yourself much more vulnerable to temptation. It is like making the colossal mistake of choosing to fight a war on two fronts. Fighting a war on two fronts is a losing military strategy because the resources you allocate to one front limit the resources you can commit to the other, leaving both fronts unnecessarily vulnerable.
Even the most motivated individuals will eventually run out of willpower when they place so many simultaneous demands on it. Research has likewise shown that people attempting to control their alcohol consumption tend to fail on days in which they are forced to exert more self-control in areas unrelated to their drinking. Personal and professional commitments that require us to make difficult decisions and exercise restraint are already depleting our willpower, so taking on more than one willpower challenge at a time is a huge mistake.
3) OUR WILLPOWER IS HIGHEST IN THE MORNING
When we wake up in the morning, our willpower is at its peak. Our willpower reserve is like our cellphone battery. When we get adequate rest, we begin the day with a fully charged battery.
One of the best things we can do for our willpower, health, and vitality is to get at least seven and a half hours of sleep each night. Clinical studies have demonstrated that most people need between 7 ½ and 8 ½ hours of sleep each night. The easiest way to do better is to be better rested. We do our best when we feel our best. Regular exercise, meditation, and stable blood sugar levels also contribute to enhanced willpower.
As the day wears on, our willpower depletes, eroding our ability to discipline our behavior. Stress, hunger, and fatigue are like energy-hungry apps that quickly drain our willpower. Likewise, the more temptations we encounter, the quicker we will exhaust our willpower.
4) THE BEST USE OF OUR WILLPOWER IS TO REMOVE TEMPTATION
Willpower is best used to shape our environment to eliminate the need to apply it continuously. We only need a roof when it’s raining – we only need willpower when we are tempted. We want our environment to protect us from temptation. This will give us more willpower to overcome temptations outside our control. This is common sense, but how many people unnecessarily put themselves in situations that force them to use willpower? How many people keep junk food in their homes while dieting?
If there is no junk food in your home, you won’t be tempted to eat it. If your gym clothing is laid out the night before, you will be more likely to work out. If you have meals ready to eat in your freezer, you’ll be less likely to order takeout. If you have difficulty getting up early, going to bed earlier, and putting your alarm clock across the room will decrease the chances you will hit the snooze.
Your environment should help you translate your intentions into actions. If you are committed, laying out your clothing the night before, having meals ready to eat in your freezer, removing junk food from your home, and setting up cues to initiate good habits is a given. What is often seen as a lack of willpower is really a lack of commitment. Your environment should reflect your goals. If you want to eat healthy foods, those should be the only options at home. Get rid of the junk food already!
Shaping your environment isn’t restricted to your physical surroundings. How you structure your day is a powerful way of shaping your environment. Break up your day into periods dedicated to specific tasks. When that time arrives, begin. When it is time to train, grab your bag, or put on your workout clothing. Before you eat a meal, log it. Cues and triggers are critical to shaping your environment. If you want a habit to be a BIG part of your day, make the cue a BIG part of your environment.
5) HABITS CONSERVE OUR WILLPOWER
Habits are powerful for numerous reasons, not the least of which they don’t rely on willpower. They conserve it. Our minds essentially operate on autopilot, and the action flows. My coworkers often tell me that I am so disciplined for working out each day during my lunch hour. It isn’t discipline or willpower that gets me to the gym; it is a habit. I struggle with willpower as much as anyone. My military background and having graduated from the United States Military Academy may lead you to believe I am a paragon of willpower and discipline, but I struggle with it, like everyone else. My struggles with willpower inspired my study of willpower and habits.
A better understanding of willpower is vital to our success. The more willpower we have, the more successful we will be. Self-control is the best predictor of success, as demonstrated by the famous “Marshmallow Test” administered to children between three and five. Children that were able to wait for 15-minutes to receive an additional marshmallow did better in school, got higher SAT scores, had higher self-esteem and better emotional coping skills, and were less likely to abuse drugs. No other test with adolescent participants has been so predictive of future success.
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