Let’s play a little game: challenge yourself to get up at 4:30am for Yoga, avoid donuts in the breakroom at work, write 5 proposals and the budget for the next quarter, come home and cook a roast, then find time to play with your kids _and_ work on your side project of learning how to code.
Having fun yet? Oh, you’re not? No surprise there. That’s because willpower is a finite resource with diminishing returns. You only have a certain amount of willpower to use, and the more you force yourself to use it during the day, the less you’ll have available. By the time you would have theoretically gotten to that roast, it’s almost a guarantee it would have turned into takeout.
But there’s a solution. Think of it as a gamifying your productivity: you only have a certain amount of “willpower points” to spend every day. Since you only begin each day with a limited supply of cognitive willpower ability, you need to figure out how to get the most out of your productivity “points.”
Next-Level Willpower Power-Ups
The good news is, you can grow your daily supply of willpower. You can expand your maximum available willpower by “leveling up.”
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct, says, “Any muscle in your body can be made stronger through exercise. If willpower is a muscle, even a metaphorical muscle, it should be possible to train it. That’s what the research shows.”
This is the “muscle model” of willpower, where you can look at willpower as a function of the brain and the body, something that can be trained and strengthened just like any other muscle. When your willpower is put to the test, you have biological reactions in your body and brain, so you can train your body to respond better to that reaction.
Boost your willpower fast by spending some “points” on:
- Eating right. The right diet and overall nutrition affect your daily function way more than you might think. Make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure by fueling your body and mind with food or drink that leave you sluggish, anxious, or primed to crave more junk food. (Bad things can happen when you go in search of cake.)
- Clearing your mind. If you think of meditation like an exercise for the mind, it makes sense that it’s been linked to improving your control impulses. Dr. McGonigal says meditation actually “changes both the function and the structure of the brain to support self-control.” Longtime meditators build more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain directly responsible for self-control, but changes can be seen in as little as 8 weeks of practice.
- Sleeping well. It’s amazing how many things considered “productivity issues” can be solved by simply getting enough sleep every night. While the link between chronic lack of sleep and poor impulse control isn’t fully understood yet, studies found people who reported better sleeping habits also had better self-control and less psychological strain. People who slept poorly also chose less cognitively challenging tasks and showed decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, indicating that the brain area responsible for willpower wasn’t fully functioning.
- Building habits. Like any muscle, you build strength in your willpower muscle through repetitive heavy lifting. So that means you have to practice using your willpower. You can try setting a small, actionable goal that’s a bit of a willpower stretch for you. If you’re a late sleeper, make yourself wake up early. If you’re right-hand dominant, train yourself to use your computer mouse with your left. Change a personal speech pattern, like swearing less or not using “um.” Anything that sets up a repetitive confrontation where you’re forced to use your willpower muscle can help you strengthen it.
Also be wary of setting up situations where you deplete all your willpower through “training” and overriding unwanted impulses right before you need your willpower the most.
For example, let’s say you force yourself to wake up early, not buy the fancy coffee, use your mouse with your left hand, stay off of social media AND avoid the donuts in the break room all morning.
All this expenditure of willpower points might make it harder for you to stop yourself from saying “um” during your big presentation that afternoon. Go slow, just like with any training regimen.
Tools That Give Your Willpower A Boost
Everything you can do to help yourself find the easiest way forward will help prevent you from depleting your willpower. Make sure you’re equipped with tools and apps to help keep you on track.
Build a system with organizational tools so you don’t have to dig for reminders or remember every detail. Trello works especially well for anyone who’s visual.
Nothing depletes willpower faster than continuously addressing distractions. Give yourself a leg up by using apps that create a less-distracting environment. These tools help you avoid the small things that damage your willpower reserve throughout the workday:
- Freedom. Block distracting websites across all of your devices. Although putting yourself in charge of blocking your own distractions seems less-than-useful at first, the “set it and forget it” nature of the app means that you can actually foil yourself.
- Forest. This delightful app “gamifies” focus by having you grow a virtual tree the longer you leave your phone untouched. (It’s seriously delightful!)
- Focused. Designed to help you focus purely on your writing, this Markdown-based writing app eliminates all screen distractions to keep your eyes and mind on your work. It even comes with zen-inspired soundtracks you can play while you write!
Remember that building habits (good ones, hopefully) is a great way to increase your available willpower and its overall strength. Here are a few tools that help you keep a habit going:
- MyFitnessPal. Tracking is great for building habits, so apps like MyFitnessPal can help you stay committed to new nutrition, or fitness-related goals, through its tracking tools.
- HeadSpace. An app that teaches and motivates you to meditate, HeadSpace helps keep you on track for daily or regular meditation to improve that willpower muscle.
- Chains. This app builds on the premise that if you’re building a habit chain, you’ll be less likely to break it when it gets really long. Inspired by the habit-forming habits of Jerry Seinfeld (really!), it shows you a “chain” of days where you’ve successfully completed a task, encouraging you not to break the chain by continuing to form that habit through repetition.
Allocate Your Willpower Points For Maximum Results
Depending on how you choose to level up your willpower will dictate the outcome. No one-size-fits-all advice for how to allocate your willpower points and build your willpower suits everyone the same. The question is: for which traits would you like to optimize?
What works for you will depend a lot on what you’ve discovered about your personal working style. If you tend to have spurts of productivity at certain times of the day, arrange to complete your most important or biggest cognitive tasks at that time.
Some research shows that a majority of people are most productive early in the morning, when that pot o’ willpower is as fresh as the coffee, but that’s not true for everyone.
If you’re someone who gets overwhelmed by large tasks to the point of paralysis, break big tasks up into smaller, digestible chunks and spread them throughout your day or even week. This tactic can help you face each piece of a large task without draining your willpower all in one go.
Squad Willpower: Wins Every Time
Don’t go it alone: gamifying a system is done better with companions. You’re no different in life or at work, so before you “gather your party and venture forth,” make sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right crew.
The company you keep has huge effects on every area of your life, including motivation and willpower. Surround yourself with people who help you stay on track for the kind of workday you want to have.
Try to avoid spending time with people who constantly expose you to situations where you have to spend willpower points.
For instance, if you’re spending those precious points willy-nilly because you sit next to a coworker who constantly invites you to take breaks to go eat those donuts in the break room (always with those donuts!), try to sit somewhere else or enlist that coworker in your quest to avoid temptation.
If you’re a manager, pay attention to the working styles and interactions of your team. Some team members or situations might be forcing other people to spend too many willpower points.
This can be subtle. For example, do the more introverted team members constantly spend energy and willpower in large group meetings? Can you have fewer meetings (yes, please, always) or perhaps do more of your team interactions via chat, rather than always face-to-face in large groups?
Finding the right group makes gathering and spending those willpower points wisely a lot easier.
Leveling Up Is A Process
Think of spreading your points around carefully if you’re an introvert planning social interactions, so you don’t deplete your supply of “social points.” If you tend to overwork yourself or over-exercise, think of your energy as a finite supply of “energy points” and allot them carefully.
The idea of “willpower points” can help us understand our limitations but also the potential for growing our supply of self-control.
It also helps to remember that this is a process. You wouldn’t expect to go out the door and run a marathon right after you start training. You wouldn’t expect your level 1 video game character to beat the boss in level 20. Don’t expect yourself to suddenly be able to resist the plate of donuts in the break room or work 5 hours straight on that big project.
Be mindful of the instances when you feel your willpower straining. Be kind to yourself as you work on building your willpower muscle to take on higher-level adventures and be more successful during your day.
Where do you spend most of your willpower points during your day? (Those darn break room donuts.) How leveled up are your willpower stats in your game of Life? Let us know if you have any tips for improving your own impulse control to stay more focused on working!