How NOT to Boost Your Willpower
Know and Avoid Everyday Willpower-Killing Behaviors!
Willpower helps you tackle the tough stuff. The critical stuff. The stuff that makes a big difference in your career and home life. But there are things you’re doing across your day that undercut it. Seriously. I’ll share how you’re hampering your own willpower and what you can do to avoid these traps — and even boost willpower.
Let’s First Define Willpower
The dictionary definition is something like: self-control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s impulses.
As such, it’s not just willpower (“I will do the harder-but-more-noble thing”), it’s also “won’t-power” (“I won’t do this tempting thing that’s against my long-term interest”).
The more willpower — and won’t-power — you’re able to muster, the better you can keep your ADHD brain out of trouble, and your actions pointing in a positive direction.
But another thing about willpower is that it’s depletable, like gas in your car’s fuel tank. And there are things you’re doing throughout your day that are needlessly burning it. That’s right — you’re undermining your own willpower every day. We all are.
I can control my available willpower? Yep.
How NOT to Boost Willpower
Willpower allows you to resist temptations, make hard decisions, manage emotions and steer your behavior. But from the moment you wake up, your willpower fuel tank heads toward empty throughout the day. Ironically, a few things that accelerate that fuel burn are resisting temptations, making tough decisions, managing your emotions and regulating your behavior. All positive things! So doing the right thing burns willpower!
But there are other things you’re doing that further burn your willpower fuel. Not-so-right things. Let’s look at the range of these (bolded) in the context of a hypothetical work day.
Let’s say that your supply of willpower for the day fits in a gas tank. You start your day by giving 20 minutes of your attention to emails before you even leave for the office. Oops, that burned some willpower. OK, you’ve got plenty left, no worries.
Off to work! First thing at your desk, you tap into this tank of willpower to dive into that big project you’ve been putting off. Yep, that eats up some, too, but that’s what it’s there for — doing the tough stuff.
Oh geez, now you’re interrupted by a phone call — your boss insists that you attend an unscheduled meeting, right now. Your stress response fires up because you did not plan on this and do not want to be there, but you have to. You can smell the fuel burning off.
OK, so you get to the meeting. You’re still carrying those negative vibes, which make it even tougher to give your full attention to the meeting so you impatiently start multitasking — listening to the meeting, taking notes, checking and responding to emails and texting with a client.
OK, meeting’s over. Now back to work. But now it’s lunch time. You’re A) famished, B) a little stressed about getting back on that project and C) having a tough time deciding where to get lunch. The hunger, stress and decision-making each eat up some willpower.
Thinking that time is at a premium today, you dart out to Mickey D’s and after debating which menu item is the least evil, you opt for a Big Mac combo. You multitask through lunch but manage to squeeze in a half-decent single tasking session on your tough project until you hit the three o’clock wall, at which time you escape into 10 minutes of rampant rumination about this and that. Your fuel tank takes a triple hit from the crappy food, more work and then a round of worrying.
Then you partake in some pseudo-productivity — emails, texts, emails, paper shuffling, emails, Facebooking, emails — until it’s finally 5:30 p.m. and you’re happy to get out of the office before 6 p.m. because you’ll have time to stop at the gym.
But your tank is now so low on willpower fuel that you can’t muster the firm decision to just do it. So, you rationalize skipping the gym because you’re beat and today didn’t flow like you thought it would.
And I could go on about your evening TV habits, cracking open a bottle of beer or wine, staring at your smartphone before bed — all of which further weaken you for tonight and for tomorrow.
So let’s review…
- Your very exertion of willpower leaves less of it available, for instance, every time you resist a temptation or buckle down on a tough task.
- But there are also things you’ve done throughout your day that needlessly drained your tank — multitasking, stressing, ruminating, junk food, pseudo-productive busywork — to name just five.
- And as a result, at the end of the day, the things that don’t get attended to as they should were things like working on tough, priority tasks, working out and getting to sleep earlier.
Good News: Manage a Few of These and You’ll CONSERVE Willpower
Let’s start with a few of the more obvious ones…
- Cut your weekly beer/wine intake and you’ll sleep better and wake with a fuller willpower tank.
- Ditto for your media intake — especially right before bed.
- Low-quality foods are poor brain fuel and will leave you hungry and grumpy more quickly than quality, high-protein/high-nutrient foods.
I know, those solutions aren’t very sexy and you’ve heard them before in one context or another. But they make a big difference. And here are a few of the trickier — but even more immediately impactful — ways to stop burning up willpower…
- Watch out for pseudo-productivity: those activities you slip into because you’re avoiding tougher tasks (like that big project), and which you justify by thinking, “Hey, I hafta do this stuff anyway.” Things like excessive email checking, robotic email deleting, administrative stuff that’s not really important right now, etc.
- Try to catch yourself in bouts of worry and rumination. These stinkin’-thinkin’ sessions may feel “necessary” in the moment, but they’re eating up energy and willpower. If you’re able to catch yourself, the quickest way out is a simple gratitude prayer, e.g., “Today I am thankful for ______.”
- Listen to your body for signals of stress. When, for instance, you feel your shoulders tense up as you struggle with a task, or a colleague or on a phone call, hear that siren and answer it with some deep breathing.
Even Better News: Ways to BOOST Willpower on Demand
There are things you can do to improve willpower fuel economy and even refill your tank throughout your day. A few of my favorites…
1) Know and Obey Your Ultradian Clock: Not to be confused with your circadian clock, that inborn system that tells you when it’s time to sleep and time to wake, your ultradian clock controls your exertion and recovery cycles throughout the day. And we tend to operate in 90-minute cycles.
Of course, everybody’s different. The key thing is to know your optimal sprint/rest cycle and also your strong and weak times of the day. This way you’re attacking your toughest willpower-burning tasks during your strong times and not expecting too much of yourself in your weak times.
2) Pride & Shaming
Psychologist David Desteno says social emotions like pride and shame have a quicker and more direct influence over our actions than rational arguments about long-term costs and benefits. He calls it “hot self-control.”
Examples here are thinking about your 9-year-old child before lighting up a smoke or visualizing the pride you’ll feel by nailing that presentation a week early.
3) Goal Contagion
This is where we see others pursuing a goal and get swept up into pursuing that same goal. For instance, the more you read about successful business people’s pursuit of their goals, the more effortlessly focused you will be on yours. This is one reason why inspiring figures are powerful, as is spending more time with your goal-oriented friends.
A powerful way to fuel goal contagion? Get an accountability partner or sign up for some group coaching. When you share your goals — and your proclivities to procrastinate, prevaricate or escapinate — it effectively doubles your willpower.
In Crusher™TV Episode 45: The Power of No, I talked about how practicing the easy nos helps you build your “no” muscle. And like the willpower muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Practice self-control on the easy ones — not checking your email constantly, not having that sugary snack.
As uber-coach Beth Main says, “Any time you don’t feel like doing something, look at it as an opportunity to practice your self-discipline. Catch yourself in the act of blowing something off and say to yourself, ‘I really don’t feel like doing this. But because I’m working on self-discipline, I’m gonna to do it anyway.’ Then do it.”
Then either share your victory with someone or journal it, which will help motivate you next time your willpower is called upon.
Stanford’s Carol Dweck says that, “[Willpower is] not unlimited — but it’s a much larger resource than previously thought.” TWEET THIS …and those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on.
Want to Learn More Ways to Boost Willpower?
There are a bunch more ways to boost willpower on demand. The 4-7-8 Technique, the Progress Principle (scoring successes), the 5 Whys, Tasks vs Systems, and more (yes, I LOVE this stuff!).
I dedicated Crusher™TV Episode 54 to 8 Ways to Boost Your Willpower, and you can click the image below to preview that episode.
P.S. You might also get a lot out of watching that entire episode of Crusher™TV where I dig deep into this topic. (You can become a member for a buck and cancel any time you like.) Again, it’s Episode 54 , and you can preview that episode here: