Multiple Choice Question: People with lots of willpower…
- Get more done
- Are made of different stuff than the rest of us
- Know some special secrets about productivity
- All of the above
- None of the above
If you chose any of the first four options, we hear you! It seems like everywhere you look, willpower is held up as the best way to get things done.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, right?
The correct answer to our little quiz is actually the last one — that none of those statements about willpower are true. And yet, people all over the world want to know how to increase willpower in every part of their lives. Unfortunately, people who rely solely on willpower get less done, slip up on their goals more often, and are often more exhausted than they’d ever expect.
That’s because none of us have an infinite supply of willpower. It’s like the battery in your phone — when you don’t use it all day, the battery stays full. But when you have to use it a lot, boy does it drain quickly.
Once it runs out, willpower forces us to rely on another lie we’ve been fed: discipline. When we can’t power through anymore, we have to white-knuckle it, and that gets exhausting quickly. Once we’ve burned through that option, we have no choice but to fall back on our default settings — our habits.
So, Why Does Willpower Fail So Fast?
Kelly McGonigal PhD, from Stanford University’s Health Department, says:
“One of the most replicated findings in the field of willpower research is that people who use willpower seem to run out of it. Interestingly, any act of self-control leaves people with less willpower for completely unrelated challenges. Trying to control your temper, ignore distractions or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength. The research also shows that willpower decreases over the course of the day, as your energy gets “spent” on stress and self-control.”
Our brains consume as much as a fifth of all our available energy each day. Because it’s a taxing process for the body to release new energy if we haven’t eaten something recently, we start getting tired and slowing down.
It’s at this point that willpower fails — our brains just don’t have the energy they need to resist temptation. Throw in some stress or fatigue from a bad night’s sleep, and it’s a recipe for disaster. We lose our temper, carve into that cake or skip our workout for the day. Or, we rough ourselves up with aggressive pep talks and force our way through, hating every moment and feeling more and more worn out.
This is just not an effective way to do things. You’ve probably experienced this exact cycle yourself a few times, and if you’re ready to break out of it and start making things easier on yourself, let’s dig into how you can make that happen. Learning how to increase willpower is actually a question of changing the game you’re playing.
How to Increase Willpower Through Habits
There are a few simple changes we can all make that, on the surface, might look like just basic tips on how to increase willpower. But they’re deeper than that. They go to the core of the brain, helping us transform our old, ineffective patterns to new, productive habits.
- Manage Your Sleep and Stress
According to McGonigal, “Sleep deprivation (even just getting less than six hours a night) is a kind of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. The prefrontal cortex is especially hard hit and it loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response.”
If we’re going to build new habits, we need to be rested and relaxed. The body and brain do not do well under prolonged stress and fatigue, so this is a good place to start practicing a new habit.
Pay attention to your pre-bed routine — are you up looking at your phone or watching TV for hours before you try to sleep? Are you responding to email long after you leave the office, stressing about everything that comes up? Create a routine for yourself that will help you calm down and get better quality sleep (and more of it). For example, you might decide that your new habit will be to go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night to bring your total sleep time up to 8 hours per night. Set a quiet alarm about 90 minutes before you want to go to sleep each night to remind you to turn off your devices to let your body know to start winding down. Another quiet alarm 45 minutes later might remind you to do a 15-minute sleep meditation (since meditation is another big win for making your brain adaptable to new habits). Once you’re relaxed and calm, you can get ready for bed and fall asleep easily.
After 66 days, you’ll have this keystone habit — that will make everything else easier — nailed down. If you’re getting enough sleep and you’ve reduced your stress, it’s going to be far easier for you to change or build your habits.
- Start With One
It’s tempting to go for broke when we realize we can change our behaviors. Unfortunately, that approach tends to burn us out.
McGonigal, and Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, both recommend picking one goal that you really want to build a habit around, and focusing on that until you’ve cemented it. Then you can repeat the process with the next singular thing you want to focus on.
Duhigg starts his famous book with the story of Lauren, a woman in her mid-thirties who had completely transformed her life in the past couple of years. She had taken part in a study of people who had overhauled their habits, and was the star participant. In four years, Lauren had quit smoking, lost 60 pounds, taken up running (and then ran a marathon), started a new career and travelled extensively.
But this huge change started with just one step. After getting divorced, she wanted a fresh start and decided that she was going to trek through the desert in Egypt. She quickly realized that to do that, she would have to quit smoking. Here’s what Duhigg has to say:
“Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that in turn changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her work days, planned for the future and so on. She would start running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house and get engaged… It wasn’t the trip to Cairo that had caused the shift, scientists were convinced, or the trek or the divorce. It was that Lisa had focused on changing just one habit — smoking — at first.”
Lisa’s transformation is a drastic one, but it highlights a key point that we can all apply immediately: one simple change can cascade habitual transformations throughout our lives.
Ask the Focusing Question from the The ONE Thing to work out where to start: “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
- Eat For Success
“You are what you eat” has never been more true than in the arena of productivity and achievement. Eating lots of sugary snacks or ‘empty’ calories and carbohydrates can send your energy on a wild rollercoaster that sucks up far too much of your willpower.
Foods that keep your blood sugar stable (which prevents energy crashes) are the best option. Build each meal around a protein source (meat, fish or chicken), add some healthy fats in (like nuts or avocado) and some fibers (like vegetables or whole grains) to keep your energy on an even keel.
Planning your foods can be a double whammy: it’s a habit that most of us want to tackle and it’s a great key habit. Getting your nutrition dialled in also has the cumulative benefit of improving your concentration and, you guessed it, improving your ability to build more habits.
- Time Your Big Hits
Give yourself the best chance of success every day by using up your stash of willpower on the most important things. If you have to finish off a piece of work to meet a deadline today, do it first thing. Don’t even open or check your voicemails — those are distractions that will immediately start chewing through your willpower. Go straight to the most important task and pour your energy into it until it’s done.
Later in the day, when you’ve exhausted your willpower, you can fall back on your defaults to achieve everything else — the habits you’ve started building now that you’re rested, well-fed and focused on the most important things in your life.
Want to save yourself from falling back on willpower to get more out of each day? Download the Willpower Cheat Sheet here and put it up somewhere you’ll see it frequently. It’s got 3 simple steps to help keep you on track and relying on your habits, so grab it here today.