The surprising science behind willpower

Katy Sunshine

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Feeling burned out? You're not alone. Many of us feel that we are dragging ourselves through the day, barely getting everything done, and falling into bed exhausted, just to get up and do it all over again the next day.

Eventually, day after day of doing that really wears you down, until you feel like you're running on empty.

Here’s the thing: willpower is a finite resource. It’s like gasoline. You start with a full tank at the beginning of the day, but every thought, action, and decision drains your tank just a little bit more.

It’s not that you’re a weak person for not being able to summon yourself to go to the gym after a long day of work. It’s not that you're weak for indulging in a brownie instead of celery when you’ve spent your entire day making decisions that may feel unpleasant to you. Oddly enough, it’s why online shopping can actually be more draining than other parts of your daily routine: you're constantly deciding yes / no / maybe.

Brain activity takes energy just like any other bodily function. And just like any other part of your body, your brain can get tired too. So it makes sense that every decision you make erodes your willpower and actually diminishes your brain power for the day. You have a battery and only so much energy to use. There's actually a study that CEOs wear the same clothing every day because it diminishes the amount of decisions they have to make -- and they have so many to make already.

Additionally it’s why meal prepping is effective for dieting as well. Why making certain decisions and routines ahead of time during your week makes it feel so much easier than deciding to do something the day of.

It can feel scary to know that your willpower is largely out of your control -- that it's dependent on your energy and that you can’t always control your day the way you want.

However, this should actually be empowering because it means you can plan ahead and be more forgiving to yourself when you know that you’re exhausted, burnt out, and at the end of your rope. It helps you determine and classify your time in a much healthier way.

There’s this book, Atomic Habits by James Clear: it’s an extraordinarily helpful narrative and helps clear up a lot of why we think and operate the way that we do. In it, James Clear explains the secrets to living a successful and empowering life based on the power of habit and routine as opposed to the mysterious willpower power we like to defer to.

“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”

In reality, the most successful people don’t actually have this intense and incredibly powerful willpower. Instead, they simply remove temptation and distraction. They automate their processes through the power of routine; therefore they’re not actually using willpower to make gains towards their goal. The most effective people make small, incremental gains every day as opposed to huge strides.

As any fellow entrepreneurs can probably relate, you have a lot of decisions to make during your day and can be surprised by how little you actually get done on your to do list! If you tie a lot of your self-worth to hitting these milestones, it can actually make you feel terrible. I’m familiar with the feeling: I’ve always been addicted to my to do list. There’s always gonna be more to get done and you need to have a more reasonable idea of what will make you happy.

So here’s a solution: for one, we’re all currently living in an extraordinary combination of circumstances that has us all testing new realities that we weren’t previously exposed to. We have so much more to deal with than we did last year, and it also takes a lot of emotional energy to process what’s going on at any given time. The pure amount of decisions we have to make every day does impact our willpower and so that’s also why we might feel less productive during this time: because so much of our mental energy is devoted to re-navigating this context.

But if you start to make more routines, and start to automate the things that you want to do, you can make subtle but certain progress towards the type of person you want to be. There are a few psychological concepts that can help you achieve this.

For one, realize that mood follows action as opposed to the other way around! It's something we've always gotten backwards. That means that if you start to do an activity that normally makes you feel a certain way, it’s very likely that it will change your mood. For example, you might not feel like working out but if you go ahead and do it then your mood will start to change based on that action. At a certain point, it will become routine and you won't have to think twice about it. And THAT will give you control over your mood without draining your willpower.

You do have control over what you can plan. If you decide to always deep clean on Fridays because you want to have a clean house going into the weekend, it’s that much easier to go ahead and clean when Friday rolls around, because it’s a decision that you’ve already made and stuck by.

If you never make a plan for when you’re going to do those things, and instead have a long to-do list that's suffocating you, you may not get to it because it’s going to take energy that you don’t have by the end of the week and the end of the day.

You could also ration your willpower in terms of knowing when to table a decision for when you have more energy. That’s why people say to "sleep on it". You can use things you know about yourself -- whether you're a morning or evening person, whether you batch your work or do a little every day -- to determine when you should do your work and when you should step away.

So knowing about your willpower doesn’t only allow you to be a more productive person and give more clarity to what you do devote your time to, but also to consider when you should rest and be more gracious to yourself as you go through that process.

So remember: Automate. Be kind to yourself. And if all else fails, use your last bit of willpower to read another of my posts ;)

Photo by Oliver Schwendener on Unsplash

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I write about mental health, holistic living, and how to find joy and meaning in your life.

Honolulu, HI
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