How many times have you set a goal for yourself, but after a few days had your momentum fizzle? Have you given up, sadly resigned to your lack of willpower?
Fortunately for you, it’s not your lack of willpower. It’s simply that you may not have learned how your willpower works.
Using your willpower effectively is a skill. With a little understanding and practice you can improve your willpower and learn to use it well.
What is willpower?
Willpower is the art of self-discipline — or your ability to manage yourself. In practice, this often means delaying short-term gratifications for the sake of longer-term goals. Or deciding you want to do something, then actually following through.
Willpower is a limited resource
The science is in: Willpower is a limited resource.
Each day when we wake up we get a fresh, but limited, supply. But once we’ve used it for a while, it’s gone. Or at least far less effective.
(Hint: This is why we’re far less likely to accomplish things that require willpower the later in the day it gets. We rationalize and say: “oh, I’ll just do that later.”)
Spend your willpower wisely
The conclusion? Save your best, fully-charged hours for the stuff that requires willpower. Routine things — and things that you have a strong desire to do — you can fit it during other times of the day.
You know there’s stuff you don’t want to do. Maybe you don’t know how to get started. Or it makes you anxious to think about it. Or you just don’t like it.
But those are the types of things that it’s most essential to get off your plate as soon as possible. Delaying until “later” usually means it won’t get done — you’ll have less willpower to tackle whatever it is.
The modern self-help gurus call this “eating your frog” — get the unpleasant stuff over with first and the rest of your day is only looking up.
Willpower is a muscle, use it well and it gets stronger
Willpower may be a limited resource, but it’s possible to make what you have go further it by using it well.
There are two main ways:
- Accomplish smaller, concrete, manageable tasks
- Take breaks between an exercise of will
Check it off the list
Accomplishing a task you set out to do feels good. It releases a cascade of pleasure hormones in the brain. We get a natural fix inside our own head.
BUT — it doesn’t matter if what we accomplish is a big thing or a small thing, the hormonal reward is similar.
Therefore, it’s more efficient to set a series of shorter, accomplishable tasks, that you can check off the list. At the end, you will end up with a more positive mental state, which means you’ll need to expend less willpower to move through your tasks.
And, if you’ve planned well, your tasks will move you further along toward your larger goals.
Take a break
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking short, intentional breaks can actually help you stay focused longer.
Just like you need to take breaks in your exercise routine to allow your muscles to relax and reintegrate, you also need breaks from focused work to allow you mind to rest.
Ideally we need a short break every 25-55 minutes when focusing deeply on a task. If you’ve been spending time at a desk, get up and walk around. (Since I work from home, I pick up things around the house, but do whatever makes sense in you situation.)
Checking your email, Facebook or Twitter, aren’t ideal breaks — they don’t offer your mind a rest the way doing something offline does. Save those activities for later in the day when your overall energy is lower.
Summing it up
Willpower may be a limited resource, but once you learn to use it well, you are one step closer to maximizing your own potential.