Willpower: The Ultimate Finite Resource Not To Underestimate
Willpower is a finite resource, and every action we take will either deplete it, replenish it or have a neutral impact on it. Understanding and learning how to use this finite resource effectively is something I’ve recently become curious about and with the help of a research and experiment driven book (Willpower by Roy Baumeister), I have become more aware of how willpower impacts everything.
Making decisions requires willpower
I make decisions continually throughout the day, whether those decisions impact one person (myself) or many people (my team, my friends, my community), understanding that I may make a different decision about the same topic based on my willpower at that moment is fascinating.
A lot of research has been done about decision fatigue. Making decisions requires willpower, because we have limited willpower, we can make a limited number of decisions. And once we’ve exhausted our willpower, we’ve exhausted our ability to make decisions. Food and sleep are the main ways to replenish willpower.
The body gets glucose through the food we consume and our glucose levels fluctuate highly throughout the day. Before a meal our glucose levels are likely the lowest, which means they are also the worst times to make any decisions.
Making important decisions should be done when we have the willpower to do so, and decisions should be avoided in all other circumstances.
Change requires willpower
At the start of the quarter or year, I often take a step back to reflect and get energized about life. As a result, I will set many intentions for the upcoming time period. What I often forget though is the reality that any change takes extra willpower.
For example, let’s say I set an intention to a) meditate every morning, b) engage in regular physical exercise, c) cook often and d) read every night before going to bed. If I attempt to introduce all four of these new activities at the same time, it’s unlikely I’ll be successful initially and I’ll feel like a failure, despite best efforts to focus my willpower on all of these activities.
An alternative approach is to focus on introducing only one major change at a time, and letting go of everything else. This could be getting into the habit of meditating every morning at first, and not worrying about if I’m exercising, cooking or reading. Initially, building the practice to meditate daily will deplete willpower (which is fine), however maybe after a few months of practice, it will have a neutral impact (or even a replenishing effect). And that’s when it’s time to introduce the next major habit change, like exercising regularly.
Focus on one major habit or lifestyle change at a time, until it no longer feels like work.
Habits conserve willpower
Building habits reduces the amount of willpower we need to perform the very activities we are trying to make habitual. For example, for years I did not floss my teeth consistently and literally every night I made a decision on if I was going to or not. And then I decided to commit to flossing every night, not because I felt it was better for me (even though it is), but because I didn’t want to have to make that decision every night (which likely consumes more willpower than the act of flossing itself).
Our Personal Best Practices are all of the little decisions we make, like choosing what to wear in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, how to get to work, where to sit on the train, and so on. All of these somewhat mundane, repetitive and (what I feel to be) lower value decisions can be made either consciously (willpower depletion) or unconsciously (neutral impact on willpower).
We can use habits as a way to conserve willpower, allowing us to use that finite resource for what we value the most (versus the least).
Learn to effort box
Between running a company, traveling every week, investing time to meditate, yoga and journal, hanging out with family and friends, and writing this blog, learning to effort box is valuable for me. To effort box is a practice where I predetermine how much effort (willpower) a specific activity is worth before engaging in it, and maintaining awareness throughout to check if I’m within that threshold.
Think of effort as a combination of time and context. Time is an objective measure in minutes or hours (easy to estimate) but context is a subjective measure of “does this makes sense to do right now”. Context is important as that the same activity will take a different amount of effort based on when I choose to do it. Writing a blog post on a relaxed Sunday morning will take me one hour, whereas attempting to write the same blog post on a Thursday evening could easily take me three hours (as my willpower is depleted).
Within this practice is the belief that done is better than perfect, and that if I have to choose two of working smart, hard and long, choosing to work smart and hard is better for me than hard and long or smart and long.
When simple feels complex
When a car is running low on fuel, the little gas tank icon lights up to make us aware. Similarly, there are many indicators when our willpower is depleted. The biggest one is when simple feel complex. For example, if routine decisions like writing an email to a partner, responding to a question from someone on my team on Slack or choosing a restaurant for dinner that night feels difficult, confusing or takes a lot longer than it should, that’s a sign that my willpower is depleted and I’m running low on fuel.
Other symptoms of willpower depletion (based on the research and my own experience) include being more easily irritated, reacting unconsciously, impulse decisions or a general feeling of frustration.
When we become aware that our willpower may be depleted, the best thing for us to do is to not make any decisions and find the nearest fuel stop (by way of eating or sleeping). Our future self will look back and be very grateful we chose to take care of ourselves.
Cut out the noise
The seemingly simple actions of checking your phone, filtering notifications in real-time, opening your inbox, going through Slack, browsing Facebook or swiping through Snapchat all consume an incredible amount of willpower. And that’s why you likely feel drained after spending a few minutes indulging in the noise.
Thousands of micro-decisions are being made a daily basis for one person, trying to filter out what’s relevant and important at any moment, and this habit pattern to be always connected, always checking and always concerned is depleting our willpower.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I took email off my phone 5 years ago, disconnect while I’m away, use Slack without losing my mind, avoid multitasking and use a screen tracking app to help make me aware of how much time I spend on my phone (which is not very much at all).
After spending time learning about the research behind willpower, I have even more conviction on the necessity to cut out the noise, so that I may continue to use the finite amount of willpower I have effectively.
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Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. Follow his leadership blog at findfocus.today. At Polar, Kunal leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Medium or Twitter.