Raise your hand if you can start working immediately whenever you want, never get tempted by junk food, always stick to your diets and exercise routines, and never get distracted by social media or email.
No? Me neither. But I’ve learned something that helps a lot.
It’s all about our willpower, the part of our mind where we decide on actions to take. Any time we’re trying to do something that goes against our impulses, habits, or desires, we’re using up some of our willpower.
Having a lot of willpower isn’t enough on its own, though. It’s like driving a motorcycle: you might have a huge engine and a full tank of gas, but if you jet down the highway like you’re in a The Fast and The Furious movie, the gauge is going to hit “empty” pretty quick.
That’s why you also need to develop good systems for managing your willpower. You could throw tons of willpower energy at a task, but why do that when you don’t have to? These next sections show you how to use a fraction of your willpower for each task, so you can store some for later.
1. Break It Down
One of the biggest detriments to your willpower will be looking at a massive task or project you need to get done, and being intimidated by the scope. The same goes for personal change. If you say “I’m going to lose 20 pounds”, that’s a huge goal that could take over a month.
But when you break down your goal into much smaller parts, like “write one paragraph of the blog post,” or “lose five pounds,” then any big project becomes more approachable.
The scarier and more intimidating a task is to start, the more willpower it’s going to require. If you can break that task into manageable chunks, it’ll be easier to get started. Then, when you finish that first small part, just start on the next one.
2. Make It a Habit
According to Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” around 40% of our daily actions are habits. That means that we’re not consciously deciding to do the things we do, we’re just doing them because we’d trained our minds and bodies to act a certain way in a certain situation.
This is a good thing, for the most part. Imagine if every time you got into the car you thought “Okay, take off parking brake, put on regular brake, turn the key, look back, look left, look right, switch to reverse…” you get the idea. We wouldn’t have time to think about anything else!
But there are certainly bad habits, too. Maybe whenever your alarm clock goes off, you hit snooze. Or whenever you’re getting lunch at work, you get a cookie to go with it. Do these things frequently enough, and you’ll stop thinking and just do them on autopilot.
Good habits, on the other hand, help you preserve willpower. For example, if you schedule time for a workout every day, then you don’t need to think about getting yourself to go. Once you go every morning at 8 a.m. for a week, you’ll start going automatically and won’t need any willpower to leave the house.
Or you could create a habit where, every time you get to work, you immediately sit down and spend 25 minutes on your most important task before talking to anyone or checking email. Once you diligently do this for a few days, it will just be your natural thing when you get to work.
Think about your frequent tasks that require willpower, then see if you can create a habit to make them happen automatically. Once you have a habit you want to try to implement, use an app like Beeminder to help you commit to it. Having some money on the line will keep you much more accountable.
You can even connect Beeminder to Zapier, an app-automation service, to tie your goals to the apps you use most and check off goals automatically as you finish work in your apps.
3. Avoid Bad News
Unhealthy bodies foster unhealthy minds, and an unhealthy mind has much lower willpower. A sad or stressed mind has much lower willpower, too, which is why it’s important to be careful about the information that you’re taking in.
If you read too much scary news (which, let’s be honest, is redundant), the stress that comes from thinking about homicides, bombings, or downward market shifts will result in having less willpower throughout the day. Even looking through pictures of a more successful friend’s Caribbean vacation can decrease your drive.
The easiest solution is to avoid bad news that doesn’t directly apply to your decision making. If your website is down, you should obviously know about that. If you’re a broker, market swings are definitely worth paying attention to. But for most of us, the latest murder story is just going to bring you down.
4. Create a Supportive Willpower Environment
The less you need to use your willpower, the more of it that you’ll have. Creating an environment that reduces your need to use any willpower can maximize your ability to work on important tasks.
If you have a candy bowl on your desk, or even snacks right outside your office, then every time you’re looking at that food and resist eating it, you’re using up a bit of your willpower. If you have notifications on your phone, trying not to glance at them them when you hear the beep is using up your willpower. Looking at pictures of tempting food can lower your willpower.
Even having internet access can lower your willpower. It’s certainly harder to focus on writing this article knowing there might be something really important that someone just tweeted. That’s why Jonathan Franzen has said “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”
To optimize the willpower at your disposal, create an environment that supports it. Use an app like RescueTime to block distracting websites when you need to focus, and try using the Pomodoro technique to keep yourself in the zone for at least 25 minutes. And if you have any tempting food, games, or books nearby, get them out of your field of view so you don’t need to resist them.
If you choose RescueTime to track your productivity, you can also pair it with Zapier to export your activity and trigger notifications about your progress.
Until you have a habit in place, pre-commitments help you complete tasks while minimizing the willpower costs.
The way it works is simple: just create a rule in your head, saying “when this happens, I will do this thing.” For example, “when I get to work, I’ll immediately spend one hour burning through my email backlog.” Or “when I wake up, I’ll immediately put on my clothes and go to the gym.”
Rules like this make it much easier to overcome willpower challenges, since telling yourself “when this happens, I’ll do this” takes less mental energy. Plus, when the first thing happens, you’ll be inclined to keep to your word since psychologically we try to avoid cognitive dissonance. Essentially, we hate to go back on our word.
So when you need to do something that you know you’ll have a hard time getting yourself to do, just chain it to something else — it will make getting started much easier.
6. Know Your Rhythms
Finally, stay self-aware and figure out what times of day you’re at your best, and when you need a break.
We all have a circadian rhythm that regulates our sleep. It tends to make us the most tired around 2 a.m., but it also creates a dip in energy around 2 p.m. in most people. If that’s the case for you, then schedule your simpler tasks for your circadian “dip,” so you don’t burn yourself out.
We also all have an ultradian rhythm, which regulates our energy on shorter cycles throughout the night and day. Essentially, every 90 minutes our minds go through a cycle from peak high alertness to low alertness. If you’re working at your peak in the cycle, then you’re most likely being effortlessly productive.
But trying to work at the trough is a struggle, and could quickly burn up more willpower than necessary. Try focusing for 60–90 minutes, then taking a 15 minute break when you can feel the fatigue setting in. You’ll come back feeling refreshed and productive.
Maximize Your Willpower
If you’re ready to start implementing the knowledge in this article, here are the easiest first steps:
- Identify which health aspects you could improve to give yourself more willpower, like your weight, sleep habits, and exercise levels. Just start with one! Don’t try to fix everything at once.
- Check out Headspace, Calm, and Chris Bailey’s intro to meditation. You’d be amazed at how training your mind to focus in silence translates to better productivity at work.
- Look for small tasks throughout the day that you can do that push your willpower.
- Assess your work environment for willpower drains and temptations. What can you hide or get rid of so you’re not forced to resist it? And download an app like RescueTime to take care of blocking distracting sites.
- Keep a notebook, or use RescueTime, and see when you’re at your least productive and lowest energy throughout the day. Having that timeframe in mind will help you avoid scheduling your most stressful work at a time when it will burn you out
- Keep looking for new habits that you can build, and pre-commitments you can make that will help you get things done!
Finally, let me know your biggest willpower challenge in the comments, whether that’s staying focused on the task at hand, avoiding junk food, going to the gym, or anything else! I’d be more than happy to respond with some ideas for things you can try to make them require less willpower to work through.
Credits: Pizza photo courtesy The Pizza Review.