Willpower is not something you either have or do not have—willpower is sometimes a function of necessity. More often, willpower is a function of success. It is easy to stay the course when you feel good about what you are accomplishing.
Willpower is also a muscle that can be developed; the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. And that's great, but what if you need help doing the things you need to do right now? What if you can’t wait for the virtuous cycle of motivation to kick in?
You're in luck. Here are some tips you can start using today to help you accomplish what you want to accomplish, without needing to possess incredible willpower—or, really, any willpower at all. The process starts with designing your life so it supports your goals.
Step 1: Eliminate as many choices as possible.
We all have a finite store of mental energy for exercising self-control. Some of us have less, some have more—but we all eventually run out of willpower steam. That’s why the more choices we need to make during the day, the harder each one is on our brain, and the more we start to look for shortcuts. (If you like, call this the "Oh, screw it" syndrome.) Then we get impulsive. Then we get reckless. Then we make decisions we know we should not make...but it's as if we just cannot seem to help ourselves.
In fact, we often cannot help ourselves: We have run out of the mental energy we need to make smart choices. That’s why the fewer choices you're forced to make, the smarter the choices you can make when you do need to make a decision. Say you want to drink more water and less soda. Easy: Keep three water bottles on your desk at all times. Then you won't need to go to the refrigerator and make a choice.
Alternatively, say you struggle to keep from constantly checking your email. Easy: Turn off all your alerts. Alternatively, shut down your email and open it only once an hour. Or take your mail program off your desktop and keep it on a laptop across the room. Make it hard to check—then you are more likely not to.
Say you want to make smarter financial choices. Keep your credit card in a drawer, and then you cannot make an impulse buy. Or require two signoffs for all purchases over a certain amount; then you will have to run those decisions by someone else (which probably means you’ll think twice about making the purchase and won’t even bother to ask).
Choices are the enemy of willpower. So are ease and convenience. Think of decisions that require willpower, and then take willpower out of the equation completely.
Step 2: Make decisions tonight so you will not need to make them tomorrow.
It’s easier to make smart choices when the decision isn’t right in front of you. Pick easy decisions that will drain your store of willpower tomorrow, and make them tonight. For example, choose what you want to wear. Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, found a way to make this decision incredibly easy: He wears jeans and a white T-shirt every day.
Alternatively, decide what you will have for breakfast. Scott Dorsey, the aforementioned co-founder of ExactTarget eats oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast every day.
Maybe you’ll choose to decide what you’ll have for lunch. Just make sure to prepare it the night before. Alternatively, maybe you will decide what time you will work out. Just make sure to pack your workout gear the night before.
The key is to take as many decisions off the board as you can the night before, because that will allow you to conserve tomorrow’s mental energy for making the decisions that really matter. The goal is to make certain actions automatic rather than decisions, because decisions require willpower. The power of routine will not only make you more efficient but will also make it a lot easier for you to make important decisions. When you do not have to make decisions, decision fatigue is very easy to avoid.
Step 3: Do the hardest thing first.
Science says you have the greatest amount of energy first thing in the morning. In a landmark study performed by the National Academy of Sciences, parole board judges were most likely to give a favorable ruling early in the morning. Just before lunch, the odds of a favorable ruling dropped to almost zero.
Should the judges’ decisions have been affected by factors other than legal ones? Of course not—but they were. Why? They got mentally tired. They experienced decision fatigue.
That's why the best time to make tough decisions is early in the day. That’s why the best time to do the most important things you need to do is early in the day. Decide what those things are and plan to tackle them first thing.
Step 4: Refuel often.
Although the judges in the study started the day strong, a graph of their decision making looks like a roller coaster: up and down, up and down. Why? They took periodic breaks to eat or snack. Just after lunch, their likelihood of making favorable rulings spiked. The same held true after midmorning and midafternoon breaks.
It turns out glucose is one of the foundations of willpower. Although your brain does not stop working when glucose is low, it does start doing some things and stop doing others: It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term outcomes.
How can you avoid that? Eat healthy meals. Eat healthy snacks. Not only will you feel better, but you will also make better decisions—and you will be able to exercise more willpower in making those decisions.
Step 5: Create reminders of your long-term goals.
You want to build a bigger company, but when you’re mentally tired it’s easy to rationalize doing less than your best. Or you want to lose weight, but when you’re mentally tired it’s easy to rationalize that it makes more sense to start your workout program tomorrow. Or you want to better engage with your employees, but when you’re mentally tired it’s easy to rationalize that you really need to work on that proposal instead.
Mental fatigue makes you take the easy way out—even though the easy way usually takes you the wrong way. The solution is easy: Create tangible reminders designed to pull you back from the impulse brink. For example, a friend keeps a copy of his bank loan taped to his computer monitor as a constant reminder of an obligation he must meet. Another keeps a photo of himself when he weighed 50 pounds more on his refrigerator as a constant reminder of the person he never wants to be again. Another fills his desk with family photos, both because he loves looking at them and reminding himself of the people he hopes to provide for.
Think of moments when you are most likely to give in to impulses that take you further away from your long-term goals. Then use tangible reminders of those long-term goals to interrupt the impulse and keep you on track.
Based on excerpts from The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win by Jeff Haden, with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jeff Haden, 2018.