ACTUALLY Managing Willpower Like A Resource

J Li
J Li
Feb 26, 2015 · 6 min read

(especially when it’s low to begin with)

You know how it’s been shown in recent psychology that willpower is a resource? The idea is that you have a certain approximately fixed amount that you draw from whenever you do anything that needs willpower, and when you run out you can’t use it as easily anymore. They’ve also shown that certain activities like practicing up your willpower will increase or decrease it over time, making it a hot self improvement topic.

You know how most of us, despite factually knowing these things, don’t do that much about it (because repeatedly focusing on managing your willpower takes… willpower)?

The following is a quick, low-effort technique for dealing with a shortage of willpower. It’s a pretty basic hack that’s based around using the least amount of willpower to gain the most in the longterm.

PART 1

Sit down for 15 minutes, once. Do the following.

1) Make a list of the 3–10 most efficient uses of your willpower for improving willpower. That means things that give you the most willpower back in exchange for willpower spent, as an approximate ratio. If you struggle with willpower, you probably already have a pretty good sense of what makes you better or worse at it.

Mostly, this category will include various types of self-care, physical and emotional. Social interactions, meditation, and practical small wins are also common options. For most people, sleep will be at the top of this list.

It’s important to note that things that don’t belong on this list include: — Things that lend energy, rather than willpower. There’s a difference between the ability to do something and the motivation to do it. Energy is a whole different story. — Things outside of your control, such as “being praised for my work”. — Things that give short, one-time injections of motivation toward a particular action, aka ‘psyching yourself up to work out’. This is the most frequent area of confusion, but remember that we’re treating willpower as a global resource, so anything on this list has to improve your ability to do anything, and has to last if you don’t use it immediately.

2) Sort the list, in decreasing order of efficiency. (Ie, #1 is the most efficient, etc.)

3) Make a second list of 2–5 things you often do that reduce your overall available willpower. Note that these are NOT things that cost a large amount of willpower to do (like chores), but rather things that are inexpensive in cost but still shrinks your total amount.

This list will vary more by individual. For me, needlessly checking in to stress over things I’m worried about, or eating in the mid-afternoon, are at the top of the list. Once again, only include things that you have control over.

4) Sort your second list in decreasing order of efficiency. Once again, efficiency is defined by how much willpower it takes to stop doing them compared to how much willpower they drain. (Eg, it’s pretty easy for me to stop deliberately stressing myself out, but it’s very hard for me to avoid a midafternoon snack because I get tired around that time, so stress goes above snack even though snack has a bigger impact.)

5) Optionally, only if it feels right for you, you can at this point merge the lists. When doing so, keep it sorted by efficiency: Namely, compare how easy it is to do/avoid a given element with how much willpower is gained/lost by doing so.

This step may not be for everyone because a) You may have a hard time comparing quantity gained with quantity lost, since they’re very different internal experiences b) The “I will” type of willpower and the “I won’t” type of willpower are actually slightly different mental activities, and may not be interchangeable for many people.

I personally, for example, do not merge my lists.

PART 2

In any given day, go as far down both lists (or your single merged list) as you feel comfortable doing.

The only thing you’re trying to do is stay in order. Don’t wear yourself out trying to go too far. You’re not trying to get a high score. So don’t bother with something lower on the list if you haven’t been able to hit something higher on the list (unless it’s a timing issue and they have different opportunity windows). Even if a lower thing happens chronologically first, don’t attempt it if you think it would make you unlikely to do the higher thing.

It will be vanishingly unlikely that you will hit everything on the list, and don’t worry about trying. For many of us, getting down to #3 is pretty good. Don’t worry about how far you go, just stay in order. (If you can consistently hit everything on the list on the first try, this is not a good use of your time, go do something else with your life instead.)

Also don’t worry if yesterday was better than today. It will vary a lot based on what else is going on in your life. Just stay in order.

How / Why It Works

1) The point of this exercise is essentially to build a willpower savings account. We’re taking whatever spare willpower we’ve got in a day, and investing it in growing our overall pool.

So on any given day, the amount we have to expend on actual everyday activities will vary significantly, which is why it doesn’t matter if we got down to #6 yesterday but can only do #1 today. We’re not managing our overall willpower budget (that’s way too much of a pain), we’re just making sure to save if we can.

2) Like any other resource, it’s unfortunately true that it takes willpower to build willpower. Most willpower building exercises don’t account for the trouble it takes to use them in the first place. But in practice, if we’re low, that deficit is likely to be the #1 reason we don’t proactively build willpower in the first place— any such project just seems like a huge pain with an unsatisfying remote payout. This approach directly tackles its own viability and allows us to get the most efficient returns for however much willpower we can spend.

3) Our society tends to act like we should have an arbitrary amount of willpower. So when we decide we want to do something and then end up not being able to get ourselves to do it, we feel crappy. It’s like we failed when we should have been able to pull through. If we’re already low on willpower, an experience with failure only compounds the demotivation.

This approach removes the bummer factor from failing, because it’s not about how much we can do or how often we can do it, it’s only about what order we do it in. And, if something turns out to be really, really hard to do, that doesn’t mean we need to work harder at it— instead, it just means the efficiency of that thing is worse than initially projected and it should get bumped to lower on the list. So the approach also lets us focus on what’s easiest while feeling better at the same time.

4) Because the practice is about building up a savings account, that means doing more easy stuff over time leads to an increased ability to do harder stuff. So as time passes, it will on average get easier to go farther down the list.

However, this process is still slow, uneven, and most of all heavily dependent on what else is going on in life, so don’t stress if it’s not happening. (Remember— the point of a savings account is to be there in case of need. If your life circumstances lead you to need to put less in or draw on it a bunch, it doesn’t make you a bad saver, it just means it’s a good thing you had it.)

5) Despite everything, we are still, secretly, habit-building. Since the list remains mostly the same, and we always start with the same things, we are also making the most efficient use of our willpower to build the most helpful habits over time. If you do this for a few months, you may find that you can actually delete items from the top of the list, because once they become a habit you don’t need to spend willpower to do them anymore.

J Li

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J Li

making useful distinctions || feminist business strategy + prototyping + design || prototypethinking.io