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Be careful how you drain your willpower

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Be careful how you drain your willpower

Scott Miker

Willpower is finite.  It is not infinite.  We all rely on willpower every day.  Sometimes this gets us to avoid that donut at work or stops us from lashing out at our boss.  Sometimes it is to keep studying for a test or deciding to go to the gym.

Willpower doesn’t last.  We use it up and our ability to use it diminishes.  Throughout the day, as we use it, we deplete it.  This happens all the time and we don’t notice because it gets replenished from time to time when we sleep or relax. 

This was very clear to me the other day.  I had an afternoon meeting that I volunteered to bring in some cookies.  Having them at my desk was easy at first, but soon I found myself craving the cookies. 

This wasn’t a big deal but then I attended a meeting where someone brought donuts.  While I can usually avoid indulging in them, I grabbed one right away.  It wasn’t until afterwards that I thought about it and realized what was going on.

I also found myself with less patience.  I seemed to get irritated by coworkers when I don’t usually let myself get unnerved.  It seemed to take everything I had to avoid getting upset when a coworker showed up late to a meeting. 

The daily stresses in our life take their toll.  We rely on willpower to keep our composure and to do the things we know we should do. 

So how can we continue to improve if our willpower drains throughout the day?  How can we improve and do more of the things we should do without worrying that this will leave no more willpower when we need it?

The key is habit.  We have to realize that habit is the one force that we can rely on to overcome the limitations of willpower.  Habit is more permanent and when it happens automatically we rely on it to move us forward without having to turn to willpower.

In order to get the most out of the limited willpower we do have, we should focus on two areas.  First we need it for unplanned situations.  We need to have when we find ourselves in a situation where willpower is required to overcome.

The second way to use willpower is to build the right habits.  Building new positive habits does require willpower initially.  But as the habit becomes solidified we use less and less willpower. 

This allows us to build habit after habit.  We then use positive habits to control our behavior instead of sheer willpower.  Habits are really just patterned responses to situations, so we work hard to create the right response and then do it over and over again until the pattern becomes sticky. 

Using willpower for everything will leave you drained and then it won’t be there when you really need it, like unplanned situations.  By taking the approach of building positive habits you can start to do the things you need to do out of habit rather than by willing yourself to do them. 

Avoiding the donut at work, treating your boss with patience, studying and going to the gym all can be conditioned.  We can form the right patterns to these situations and work to make sure they become habit.  Then it requires less and less willpower. 

So, be careful how you drain your willpower.