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The Willpower Shield - Part 2

by Patrick Reynolds

Last week I laid out the idea of willpower as a Halo-like energy shield. This post is going to assume you know all the stuff covered in the first half of this post, so if you haven't read it, go check it out.

Ok, so we're onboard with the idea that willpower is 1) a finite resource that's depleted over the course of the day, and 2) any choice that taxes your willpower will drain from the same reserve, be it resisting a cookie or writing a report. 

What can you do with this information? How can you use your willpower more skillfully?

I divide willpower tactics into three broad categories; things you can do in the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Let's power up!


Short term - tactics you can employ in the next 24 hours. 

Do the hard stuff early

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This is a no-brainer once you understand that willpower drains over the course of the day. Your shield is at full power when you wake up, meaning you'll be able to power through more difficult work and resist more temptation before lunch than after it. If you're struggling with getting something done, be it a report or a workout, schedule it as one of your first tasks in the day and your chance of success goes way up. Note that there's no special value to this being the early morning, it's all about after you wake up. So if you're naturally a night-owl and wake up at 11 am, then your strongest willpower will be around noon, and that's just fine.

Do the easy stuff later

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In the course of your day, there will be some tasks you look forward to more than others. Push those to the later parts of the day. Your shield will be flickering by that point and you'll welcome the chance for an easy job. Workouts, for me, are easy. I don't have to think, don't have to plan (thanks to my Kenzai Life membership!) I just show up, crank up the music, and get it done. So I usually do my workout around 3 or 4 pm. For other people, a workout is a huge willpower struggle. They'd do better putting it earlier in the day when possible.

Strategically deploy willpower failures to boost willpower successes 

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This is a high-level tactic but can work if you know yourself well and have good inner integrity. When you're facing a big willpower challenge and you really need to get it done, allow yourself a willpower failure in the service of the bigger objective. For example, let's say I'm on a strict training diet and having no sweets for the month. At the same time I have a really difficult report to write that I've been delaying for far too long. I might set up an hour in the afternoon and consciously schedule a chocolate chip cookie into the day. Eating the cookie releases a lot of the tension that keeping my shield up was causing me. Having let this small bit of enemy fire through, I can now turn my full attention to getting the report done without feeling like I'm fighting on two fronts. 

Beware of this technique. In the hands of an amateur it can quickly devolve into a cookie every day "because it helps me get my work done." Use it wisely and only when absolutely necessary! If you don't feel confident using your shield like this then don't even try, it won't go well! 


Medium term - tactics you can employ in the next few months.

Habituation

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This is the single most important tool you have in making your willpower shield more effective. Remember how I talked about workouts being an easy task for me? That's because I'm in the habit of working out several times a week. When you make something a habit, it drastically reduces the amount of willpower required to get it done. Did you brush your teeth last night? Did you have to produce an enormous amount of willpower to reach for the brush and squeeze out the toothpaste? Probably not. That's because you've habituated yourself to brushing your teeth before going to bed. When confronting someone who hasn't gone through this process (a two-year-old, for example) you can see that tooth brushing does require willpower expenditure, much to the frustration of said two-year-old's parents. Interesting!

You can make almost anything into a habit, it's just a matter of time and consistency. But, the catch is that it takes a lot of willpower to establish a habit so strongly that it doesn't require willpower anymore. When you're trying to form a new, healthy habit, it's kind of like a fresh speed bump has been installed on your street. Every time you come up to the speed bump you need to consciously use willpower to slow down and drive over it. But if you keep driving over it every day, and the speed bump gradually gets worn down until it's just a little hump in the road and you don't think about it anymore.

New habits around eating and exercise take a solid 4-6 weeks to form. That's 4-6 weeks of being strict, employing willpower each and every time the situation arises. That's not 4-6 weeks of half-assing it, getting things right some of the time but taking weekends off. The tough thing about new habits is that breaking the chain of successful interactions sets you almost back to the beginning.

Let's say that you want to set a new habit of eating fruit instead of sweets for dessert. This habit will take about 4 weeks to set firmly. If you make it to week 3 and then have a slice of cake for dessert (often "because I'm doing so well!) then you've just reset the clock back to zero and have 4 more weeks ahead of you. Ouch.

Pacing yourself

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Once you understand that willpower is a limited resource, you can start to reorganize your days to account for it. You can avoid overloading your plate with concurrent willpower-intensive projects. If you know you have 5 things to do this week that will require a lot of willpower, try to spread them throughout the week instead of attempting them all in a single day. 

What's important here is that you know yourself well enough to diagnose which tasks reduce your shield the most. What looks like a small thing to someone else (having dinner with your in-laws for example) might be a very taxing experience for you. If you know you've got that dinner coming up you might schedule a lighter willpower load on that day and approach your in-law's door with a full battery of willpower energy.

If you constantly attempt to do too much with your willpower reserve, things will go badly. You'll inevitably cut corners, fail to deliver, break promises, or leave yourself so depleted that you're an easy target for addiction and mental disorders. Take your pacing seriously.

This is a medium term solution because you need to start thinking a few weeks and months ahead to foresee willpower bottlenecks and do your best to avoid them. Tax accountants are great at this. You're never going to get one of them to agree to take on a project during tax season. They will politely but firmly tell you to ask again in a few weeks. Stand up for yourself in the same way.


Long term - tactics that play out over years.

Meditation

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The topic of meditation is a huge blog post in and of itself. And I'll write that post in the near future. But the short version is this; simple mindfulness meditation supercharges your willpower shield's battery. It does this in two ways. First, it makes you much more aware of your mental patterns so that you can get a more accurate view of what's really sapping your willpower. Second, it gives you a gentle willpower workout with each sitting. Not so much that you'll see huge changes overnight, but enough that if practiced for months and years you'll start to notice you have a much thicker shield with which to enter the battlefield of life. You have to trust this aspect of meditation, it is seriously a long term strategy, but most people give up on it after just a few tries. 

What kind of meditation is best? The simplest kind. Sitting still, watching the flow of your thoughts without judgement, returning to the anchors of your breath and posture when you find yourself down the rabbit hole of a thought-chain. Here's a good starter approach.

Meditation is difficult, and you'll most definitely have to go through that crucible of applying willpower until its a habit as described above. I've been teaching meditation for more than 15 years, and have only seen a handful of people actually apply it skillfully. Not for the faint of heart.

Bending the curve

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You're not going to read this blog post and magically balance your willpower load overnight. I know that many of the things on your plate aren't even up to you, and you have no way to get out of them. What you can do is start "bending the curve" of your life towards a healthier willpower-to-workload balance.

You can start to say "no" to projects or personal goals that will sap your willpower in ways you're not prepared to accept. You can limit your exposure to people or events that drain your shield particularly fast. And you can say YES to those things which give you energy rather than sucking it away.

The result is a life with less stress, less guilt, and more time spent on impactful things that really matter. This is long term, meaning-of-life kind of work. And it originates with small changes you make now to expend your willpower in smarter and more fulfilling ways. Not sure where to begin? Start by looking at your schedule and reducing those things which cost you tons of willpower but aren't delivering much in return. I bet you can think of three right now.


And a final word of caution. The concept of willpower as a limited resource is sound science, but it can easily be turned into a cop-out. Don't feel like doing something? "Eh... my willpower's a bit low right now... ask me later." This response will make you very unpopular with your boss, coworkers, and family. Life is supposed to be hard. We evolved in an environment of struggle and competition. Your willpower should be pushed to its limits. This is healthy. Don't let yourself off the hook so easily that you never accomplish anything meaningful with your life!

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