Want More Willpower? Decide Less.
by Alain Hunkins
Want to kick a habit? Study more? Spend less time on Facebook? Ever feel like you have a hard time controlling these (or other) urges?
If so, you’re not alone.
For example, take the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey. The survey asks about participants’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes. Survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with such changes.
What exactly is this magic elixir, willpower, that is in such short supply?
Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
It your oomph that gets you through the tough times. Keeps you on track. Keeps you from giving over to indulgence.
In a famous early study on Willpower, psychologist Roy Baumeister (author of Willpower), tested people’s willpower with some interesting variables: cookies and radishes.
Baumeister brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some subjects were asked to sample the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Afterward, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Baumeister and his colleagues found that people who ate radishes (and therefore resisted the enticing cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about eight minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average. Drawing on willpower to resist the cookies, it seemed, drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations.
Willpower is a limited resource. It consumes mental energy. Baumeister says that “willpower needs to be preserved for the decisions that really matter.”
If you use it up on stupid stuff, you won’t have much left over for the important things.
Willpower gets depleted when you use it. That’s why when you go to buy a car, the salesperson has a field day with all of the little decisions regarding options after you’ve already decided on the make and model you want. At that point in the process, your willpower is worn down, you’re mentally exhausted, and you’ll say yes to just about anything. (Of course you need that moon roof!)
So, given how important willpower is, one thing to consider doing is to automate your decisions.
In the same way that you might having an automatic savings plan that deducts money from your paycheck and deposits it into a retirement account, you can automate your decisions.
For example, do you know you want to exercise more often? Do you recreate the wheel every week, thinking about what you’ll do and when you’ll do it? How you’ll squeeze exercise in between food shopping and your dentist appointment?
Don’t wait…automate! Sign up for the 3 nights a week Boot Camp fitness class that meets Monday/Wednesday/Friday at 6:30-7:45 pm. Guess where you’ll be three nights of the week? When you automate things, you turn conscious decisions into unconscious habits.
How much thinking did it take to decide to brush your teeth last night? Not so much.
One keen student of the importance of willpower is President Barack Obama. He explains his approach to willpower and decision making in an interview with Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. Obama discusses that, as president, he consciously has to avoid what most people spend a lot of their daily energy and focus on. He says,
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
If it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me. Besides, he cites the research. Willpower is a terrible thing to waste.
Where could you stand to routinize yourself, to automate some decisions, so that you can focus on what matters most?