Willpower has gotten a lot of good press over the years. We admire people who are said to have a lot of it.
We also tend to believe that if we don’t have a lot of willpower then we’re simply stuck with the way we are. “Oh, I just don’t have that much willpower! I could never work that hard! I can’t resist that piece of chocolate cake.”
But willpower isn’t simply an issue of having it or not. You can change your perception of willpower overnight when you understand a little bit about how it works. There’s really only one thing you need to know:
Willpower is not constant.
You do not have the same amount of willpower throughout the day. It’s like a muscle: it’s strong at some moments and fatigued at others.
Once you know this, you can change when, how, and why you do things. You can take advantage of the times your willpower is greater and make better decisions. You can realize when your willpower is low and postpone making important decisions.
Here are a few tips for managing your willpower:
1. Decide in advance what you want
Willpower changes throughout the day. It’s highest in the morning, and it lessens as the day goes on and you make more decisions. When you know what you want in life, it’s easier to manage your decision making and exercise willpower, even in the evenings when you’re most likely to be tempted. For example, if you know that you want to be healthy, you can decide before you go to a party that you will not eat dessert or have that extra drink. That way, you’re not struggling with the decision in the moment.
2. Set alarms for yourself
These alarms can be physical or mental. A physical one might be setting some kind of reminder alert, or putting a Post-It note on your mirror. It’s easy to put to-do items in your calendar so you get reminded on your phone or via email or pop-up. Then make sure you use that time to complete your task—tell yourself not doing it is not an option. What you put in your calendar is a commitment.
You can set mental alarms for yourself, too. One thing I want is to maintain my weight. I don’t want to regain the 40 pounds I used to carry around on me. I don’t even want to gain five more. If I’m focused on whether or not I have willpower, I will feel the temptation of everything around me. Instead, I focus on a specific weight, what I call my alarm weight. When I hit that weight, alarms go off in my mind and I make adjustments to my diet and exercise routine to lose a couple of pounds.
3. Know your Prime Time
Prime Time is the time of day when you are best able to concentrate and be most productive. You’re most alert and you’re better able to make good decisions. When you know your Prime Time, you can plan to use that time to tackle difficult projects and be most productive.
My Prime Time is in the early morning, especially when I have to write something. I’m not going to try to work on a blog or a book at 10 pm. It’s just too late and my mind isn’t up to the task. Knowing that, I don’t have to torture myself to try to come up with the willpower.
4. Create containers
I’m a big fan of trying to keep everything in its place to the extent possible, so I create containers. Containers can be any mechanism, tool, or method of holding things. They can be hooks for your keys, drawers for your clothes, files for your papers, and so on. These are important because then I don’t have to expend energy looking for things. I then have more energy for making important decisions during my Prime Time.
When I come home, the first thing I do is open a drawer in the stand by my front door and drop in my keys and wallet. I don’t have to decide every time I come home where I’m going to leave them. Then, the next time I leave the house, I don’t have to stress myself out looking for them. The more you can routinize your life—make fewer decisions throughout the day—the more capacity you will have for making good decisions.
Some believe willpower may be overrated, and that it’s more a question of knowing what you want and setting up an effective system to go get it. Do you know what you want? Do you have a system for getting it?