You Can Build Willpower, But There's a Better Way

Pete Ross

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Have you ever given into that afternoon craving to eat something sweet? You’ve had a rough day dealing with customers or coworkers, you’re tired and stressed and quitting time is still a few hours away. Then it happens — there’s cake because it’s someone’s birthday, or your friend offers you a muffin since she bought a couple at the store when she was out. Maybe there’s a box of Krispy Kremes sitting in the coffee area. Your willpower is at its absolute lowest, so despite your best efforts to stick to that diet you reach for the forbidden food and eat, while rolling your eyes back in ecstasy at how good it is.

An hour later you’re at your desk, hating yourself for caving. Maybe you even had that moment familiar to many where you thought “screw it, I’ve already ruined everything with this donut, might as well make the most of it”, before you gorged yourself silly.

I conducted an informal experiment on myself some time ago to investigate this phenomenon, because I have strong will power when it comes to food. My wife bought me a 4 pack of donuts (Sunday used to be a “cheat day” for food), and there were 2 left over. Normally I’d throw the remainder out immediately after eating to remove temptation, but I didn’t this time. Not only did I not throw them out, I left them out on the kitchen bench so they’d be in plain sight whenever I was in there.

My Monday morning was typical. I came back from my walk in the morning and got straight into work. Once I was done with my emails I made myself some breakfast. I ate my eggs and had coffee, glancing at the donuts a couple of times. By lunchtime I had a mild headache due to dealing with some difficult stuff at work, but I got my lunch out of the fridge and ate normally. I put the coffee on to brew and went back to work. As I walked back out 5 minutes later to get the coffee, I wasn’t glancing at the donuts, I was staring. “I’ll just take a bite, then throw the rest out”, I thought. This is exactly what I’d normally do.

A minute later both of the donuts were gone.

What just happened?

I’m sure you’re acquainted by now with the concept of decision fatigue, and the fact that the longer the day goes on, the more your mental strength and willpower will decline. This can happen early in the day if you’re really under the pump, or might last until you go to bed if it’s a lazy day like the weekend. At whatever time you hit that point though, that’s when you’ll give into temptation every single time because you have no willpower left.

This isn’t limited to your diet either. This could be skipping the gym at the end of the day because you’re exhausted, and that episode of your favourite TV show is on, so you deserve a night off. You could be on a budget and vowing not to spend any more money on clothes, but your friend emails you at 4pm on a Thursday with an online sale for that dress you wanted. Before you know it you’re typing your credit card number into the form.

People hate themselves for being weak. “If only I had stronger willpower”, they say. But the fact is we’re all weak at certain moments, every single one of us. Catch us at the point our willpower is depleted and all of us will cave. You don’t have to feel guilty about it, because with the amount of stressors that the modern world throws at us we’re all ticking time bombs when it comes to our weaknesses.

So how do we work around our weakness?

If we’re going to avoid giving into temptation, we need to build systems that prevent us from being confronted with such decisions when we’re at our weakest. Don’t assume you’re going to be at your best every single day — instead, put systems in place that ensure you can still be effective. In other words, the easiest way to eliminate our weaknesses is to plan around them when we are at our strongest.

  • That means if you have a big weakness mid afternoon to raid the cookie jar in the office kitchen, you take a healthy snack in with you and stay away from the area altogether.
  • If you have trouble controlling your spending, you keep only enough in your account for emergencies so you can’t buy things, or you give your credit card to your spouse.
  • If you want to exercise but never make it in the afternoon, go first thing in the morning before events conspire to make you too tired to go.
  • If you can’t stop surfing pointless articles on the web when you should be working, it means you install software that blocks you from going on at certain times of the day and limits the amount of time you stay on.

What you’re looking for is something that can save you from yourself. To give an example, installing web blocker software to stop you browsing online is good, but you know the password. It will keep you from browsing when you’re a little bit tempted, but if the temptation is strong enough, you’ll cave. Having someone else install the software takes you completely out of the equation. Now you can’t cave in to your weakness at all.

The absence of something is also good. When it isn’t there, you can’t be tempted because it isn’t staring you in the face all the time.

It’s also important to be aware of your domino triggers. The domino food, for example, is that food where as soon as you take a bite, you don’t stop. While you might love pizza, for instance, you never eat more than a few slices. The second the taste of ice cream hits your mouth though, you can’t stop until you reach the bottom of the tub. That is a domino food, and the only way to control it is to make sure it isn’t available, or it’s only available in a very small amount. That’s why I throw donuts out once I’ve had a couple on a Sunday, because I know despite my best intentions on Monday, at some point I’ll be weak enough to take a bite, and that one bite won’t stop until any remaining donuts are gone.

What’s that one weakness you have that always defeats you, that you’ve been trying to get on top of for a long time? Stop trying to get on top of it and start planning around it. Build a system when you’re fresh and strong, so when you’re at your weakest, the system prevents you from caving in to impulse.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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