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52 Weeks of Habits

How to Double or Triple Your Willpower Mileage


This is part three of willpower week. Here's part one on what willpower is and why it's the most important mental resource, and here's part two on how to get more willpower.

Just as someone with $100m in the bank isn't safe from  overspending themselves into poverty, people with incredible willpower  can burn themselves out if they don't apply it properly. Having a lot of  willpower is only half the battle--the other half is making the most of  it.

Willpower doesn't just get drained by the things we  consciously use it on. Almost anything in our environment can affect our  willpower, from annoying people to a tempting cupcake, and if we don't  control these factors our willpower can be wasted away. At the same  time, there are ways we can decrease the willpower load of some tasks,  making them much easier to do than they would be if we went at them  head-on, leaving us with more willpower for the next project. By  removing willpower "drains" from our lives and strategically decreasing  the willpower cost of what we need to do, we can get a lot more mileage  out of this mental resource.

Willpower Drains

Almost  anything in our environment can affect our willpower in some way. The  strongest willed person can quickly get broken down by having to deal  with too many willpower drains, and if we all aren't careful of them we  risk getting burned out as well. If you want to get the most out of your  willpower, remove these things from your life as much as possible.

Bad News
Any  bad news we receive puts us slightly sadder and more concerned state  than before we heard it. This could be news that a friend is getting  divorced, but it could also just be another report on CNN about a  shooting far away from you. As it turns out, any type of bad news that  we encounter elicits a fear response in our brains stressing us out. The  release of cortisol begins taxing our mind, and as with anything else  stressful we seek to alleviate it. If we're fearful for our safety or  well-being, which the news can certainly elicit, we'll respond by eating  and shopping. They seem like odd responses, but they're primal  instincts. When we're in danger, we need to make sure we're fully  nourished in case of attack and that we've stockpiled any goods that we  might need. Eating and shopping are both also activities that provide a  high dopamine response (anticipation of happiness) and so we seek them  out to counter the increased stress.

Similar  to bad news, people who complain a lot are bad for your health. Humans  are natural empathizers, so when someone comes to you distraught over  something in their lives you naturally empathize with them and start to  "feel their pain." Well, feeling their pain also leads to the same  increase in stress as bad news, and we'll naturally seek out ways to  calm ourselves down, even though we're not the ones suffering.

Now  I don't mean to say that you should shut anyone out who comes to you  with a problem--that wouldn't make you much of a good friend. But if you  have a friend who always seems to have another tragedy going on in  their life and who needs constant attention you might consider cutting  them off. They're making you unhappier and unhealthier.

Environmental Temptations
Being  in a tempting environment can slowly drain our willpower. It doesn't  matter what the temptation is, being around it causes a constant slow  trickle of your willpower leaving your system more and more taxed. It's  not a one-off decision "I'm not going to eat that cupcake" because every  time you look at the cupcake again your brain will release more  dopamine (the happiness anticipation drug) tempting you to eat the  cupcake and satiate your desire.

The best way to keep your  willpower up then is to create an environment of 0 or near-0 temptation.  If you're trying to lose weight, throw out all the snacks at home.  If you're trying to avoid checking your email, don't leave the tab open  while doing something else. The more temptation you can remove, the  more willpower you'll have.
Artificial Sweeteners
As it turns out, artificial sweeteners and diet drinks may actually be worse for you.  In a few studies similar to that one, participants who were instructed  to change nothing about their diet except switching from regular sugar  to diet sugar actually gained weight and became less healthy.

Here's  the problem: your body has no idea what an artificial sweetener is. It  looks at soda/lemonade/anything sweet and says "sugar coming!" and  lowers your blood sugar in preparation. If your blood sugar is lower,  then you have much less energy and can feel lethargic, but that's not  normally a problem when you're filling it back up. Except artificial  sweeteners don't fill it back up. They leave your body craving sugar,  which can cause you to seek out more sweet foods or be more tired than  it was before, significantly lowering your willpower. If you want to  drink something healthy that helps with willpower, try water or tea.

Decreasing Willpower Costs

Removing  temptations and other willpower drains is only half of it. The other  half is planning your days and work sessions strategically in order to  get the most out of your willpower and try to prevent having to use it  as much as possible. Even the most daunting task can be made easy if  approached in the right way, and when these techniques are used it takes  much less of a mental toll to push through our work.

I've mentioned before that getting into a state of "flow" can help immensely with pushing through a large amount of work. Flow is a mental state where we're engaged in what we're doing, and we're  being challenged just enough to be interested but not so much that we're  frustrated. We usually experience this when we're working on projects  that we're particularly interested in, and that require us to apply our  skills tactfully. Busy work doesn't get us into flow, it only frustrates  us.

What's important about flow and willpower is that when you're  in a state of flow you can keep going on the task at hand without  having to push yourself. You want to keep working, and it makes  it really easy to get a lot done quickly. Flow can easily be broken by  distractions and task switching though, and it takes a while to get back  into, so if you're committed to plowing through work and trying to get  in to flow it helps to remove as many distractions as possible. (If you  want to learn more about flow, I recommend this book).

Break it Down
I wrote a post on how breaking big changes down into a bunch of smaller ones makes things easier,  and the same is true for work. A big task that seems particularly  daunting will keep getting pushed back, but by looking at it as a bunch  of smaller tasks it seems much more manageable.

Imagine you were  writing a book. If you had a note on your task manager that said "start  writing book" you'd have a hard time getting started. It's unclear what  you're supposed to do, you don't know where to start, and it seems like a  HUGE tasks. Books can take years to write, how do you just "start"? But  when you look at it like this:
  • Buy notecards for outlining book
  • Spend 30 minutes writing down everything I know on X
  • Post a job on elance for a cover designer
  • Ask a friend what part of X they're interested in
  • Read "On Writing Well" and take notes
These  are all very clear tasks that feel easy to start on, and all get you  closer to your goal. The other benefit of breaking projects down like  this is that it constantly rewards you with "small wins" which is one of the best ways to build and keep momentum on a long term project.

Habits  are the best way to put productivity on autopilot. What takes a ton of  willpower in one situation can take no willpower in another, entirely  dependent upon your habits. By building effective work habits, you can  make it very easy to sit down and start on work, and not have to use up  any willpower in the process.

I know that I'm really unproductive  at my desktop computer in my bedroom. The problem is that it's  multipurpose: I use it to watch movies, play video games, talk to  friends, work, and everything in between. Getting work done on that  computer is really hard, because half of the time my mind thinks that I  should be on Youtube or Reddit.

That's why I turned Starbucks into an office.  By only working at Starbucks, not going on social websites, watching  videos, talking to friends, etc. I have created a habit of sitting down  at Starbucks and being productive. The amount of willpower it takes to  work at Starbucks vs. working at home is like night and day--I save a  huge amount of willpower by going to a "work-only" zone.
You don't  have to create a separate work environment though. You could have a  habit of working in your kitchen over a cup of tea for a couple hours  each morning. You could adhere religiously to the Pomodoro technique,  letting you be productive anywhere so long as you have a timer. The  options are endless, but they all require some dedication up front to  really lock in the habit.

Have a Work Flow
I'm a huge fan of David Allen's "Getting Things Done"  method. However, I don't think that the most important part of it isn't  the 2-minute rule that he's so frequently cited for. I'd argue that the  most important part of it is that he provides a framework for handling  work that covers all possibilities, and gives you a method for dealing  with anything that comes your way. This is huge for not letting  the constant influx or work and other requests that we get bringing us  down. By using his technique you always know what's next on your to-do  list, and have a really quick way to manage all of your information.

Since I read his book, I've been using a combination of Wunderlist and Evernote to handle everything, and it takes so much of the thinking  and fretting about what to do next out of the equation. It's like  having a free secretary that always lets you know where you're going  next, leaving you with less to worry about.

Mental Rhythms
Trying  to run a marathon after not sleeping would be a pretty poor decision.  Your body isn't in the right state for it, and you're only hurting  yourself. Trying to exert willpower while in the wrong mental state or  rhythm can be the same way. Most of us know about the circadian rhythm, but the Ultradian rhythm is just as important. The Ultradian rhythm is a 90-120 minutes cycle  your body goes through of increased and decreased body temperature,  appetite, energy, and more. This means that in every 90-120 minutes of  your day, you're going to have an Ultradian "peak" and Ultradian "dip."

If  we try to do anything too difficult during our Ultradian dip, we'll  need a lot more willpower to do it. During the dip we're tired, hungry,  cold, and generally don't want to work. By being aware of these cycles  you can get a better idea of when to take breaks, and when to take  advantage of your sudden productivity boost. If you find yourself  feeling burnt out and you've been at it for over 90 minutes, it might  just be an Ultradian dip that you can fix with a short walk, maybe  getting some water, and coming back to it refreshed.

Pre-Commit Yourself
It's  much easier to say we're going to do something in the future than to  start doing it right now. We generally imagine our future selves as  having more free time and being more able to do the things that we want  to do now, so we say that it'll be easier to do more in the future. We  can use this to our advantage though.

"Influence"  by Robert Cialdini is a book on marketing, but in many ways also a book  on psychology. One of his 6 marketing principles is called "Commitment  and Consistency," and it means that we tend to stay consistent with what  we say matters to us or that we care about, even when it's a lie.  Marketers use this all the time: they ask you if you love going to the  opera and consider yourself someone who appreciates the fine arts, and  when you say yes they try to sell you opera tickets. You're much more  likely to say yes now that you've told them (and yourself) that you're  an opera person, and the same idea can be used for getting things done.

By  saying "I'm going to work on X at noon" we make it much easier to work  on X at noon than if we had tried to do it right now. When noon rolls  around, we'll tell ourselves "well, I said I was going to do it..." and  half of the battle is already won. What I like to do is take my Rule of Three outcomes for the day, and then schedule time to work on them on my  calendar. This has the added benefit of making me show up as "busy" when  people try to schedule meetings with me, and lets me work on the big  projects much easier and for longer.

What Do You Want to Change?

I've  now talked about what willpower is, how to get more of it, and how to  manage what we already have. With this knowledge, what is a big change  you want to make in your life? Will you be able to apply some of the  techniques here? What else would have been useful? Let me know in the  comments!
Photo credit to Dr. Bill Donahue Conference Speaker, Author and Leadership Consultant -