How Will You Spend Your Willpower?

Studies show that willpower is like a muscle— you can build it by exercise, and it gets tired when you use it too much.

The book, The Power of Habit, has a lot of great material around this idea — particularly chapter 5. People who come home after a draining day that has tested their willpower in big ways are much more likely to watch more TV, eat poorly, and not exercise. To choose to do something better or healthier takes more willpower than they have left to spend.

So what does this mean to you?

Here two quick thoughts about how you spend your willpower:

1) Since you only have so much willpower in a given day, consider the order in which you do the things that fill your day.

Think about front loading your day with the hard things that matter the most. Since you can only will so much in a given day, spend it on what matters most.

2) A way around your limited amount of willpower is to make decisions ahead of time and create habits around the things that matter.

Willpower is only used when you’re actively making decisions. If you can create good habits that get you doing the things that matter most to you, even when they are hard, you don’t need to spend your willpower on them.

This is what a lot of the book The Power of Habit is about. The way the mind works when executing a habit is very different from how it works when you are choosing to do something that is typically hard for you to do. When a habit is formed, your brain has learned to execute and follow through without using your conscious mind. A habit, in this regard, is a routine that has become ingrained into your subconscious mind. This is a fascinating and powerful piece of knowledge. If you can habitualize things you do, you can do more while spending less willpower to do it.

This is some of the power of having a great routine. It takes what you do and takes the choice out of it. This is also why great artists and creators often live a highly routinized and habitualized life. Twila Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, outlines her morning routine— so habitual in order to reserve her first choice of the day for what matters most to her: dance. Similarly, Steven Pressfield gives an overview of his writing routine in The War of Art— a very ritualized experience. Finally, Roald Dahl would sit in the same chair with his typewriter every day— no matter what.

Good habits allow you to spend your willpower on the work that matters most.

So, again, how will you spend your willpower?

In the comments, what habits to allow you to do the work that matters most to you? Click here to comment.

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3 Comments

  1. Dean November 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    I initially read this post at work, during a break, huddled up in a cozy, isolated spot, trying to breathe. I was in the middle of leading a clean-up crew comprised of 130 people… to clean up after 70,000 people. This being the last stretch of a 60 hr work week, my will power tank was running off fumes…off fumes.

    After reading this, I didn’t jump out of my cozy little spot and take on the clean up with a new found zeal. My will power was still drained, and I was ok with it. Dan, your words helped me to believe I should be drained, that in fact I had already used my reserves. That perhaps there’s reason I’m craving more coffee, chocolate, grease, and an incessant desire to go see a movie (specifically Gravity, oh the glory of being in space!), There was a settling in to this, a relaxing…
    I was no more motivated than before. The rest of the day was still really hard and forced, but I was aware and mindful of my current state. Your blog helped me break out if auto-pilot and take a real assessment of current state.
    I’ve spent the past two days keeping a closer watch on my capacity and will power. Finding ways to make the easy decisions effortless in order to save capacity for my difficult ones.
    Dan, thank you for so beautifully articulating these days of our lives, you zen master you!
    Much love,
    Dean

    Reply
    1. dan November 14, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for sharing this vignette, Dean. I’m so glad these words have been helpful!

      Reply
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