The magic of willpower and habits
Do you ever feel so exhausted after making difficult choices or doing unpleasant tasks all day that all you can do is sit on the couch and ‘veg out’? That is a state called ego-depletion. Willpower, it turns out, is a limited commodity. When you resist temptations repeatedly, you use up your willpower. In the state of ego-depletion, two things happen: You have less willpower to bring to bear on the next difficult decision, and you feel temptations more strongly. The cookies that you had been resisting all day are now unbearably tempting.
The best way to conserve your willpower is to not put yourself in situations where it is excessively or needlessly depleted so that you can save it for the important things. Another willpower hack is to create new habits. Going to the gym when you haven’t gone in a long time (ahem.. pandemic) is hard. But once you are used to going every day, it’s easy. It becomes a habit. The same is true of how you manage your time. If you create a habit of procrastination, then it will be your default state. If you create a habit of sitting down and making a prioritized list of what you need to do and then planning when you will do it, then it will take less willpower to get the important things done.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
Habits occur because of a cycle of: cue, craving, response, and reward. Think about the habit of checking your phone. You probably realize that it breaks your concentration when you’re working on a difficult task. Nonetheless, when you hear the notification go off, you likely start to feel a craving to pick it up and see what it is. When you do, then you have a reward. Checking the notification relieves your sense of unease or curiosity. By repeating this cycle of cue, craving, response, and reward, you make the action automatic and harder to break. Every time you hear the cue (notification) you will have a stronger craving to complete the cycle and check it. However, by understanding the habit cycle you can also learn how to create new habits and break old ones.
For a detailed discussion of how to make or break habits, check out this podcast on the topic with Dr. Rob Orman on the Stimulus Podcast. You can listen in your car, when you’re exercising, or as you’re doing chores around the house. It’s available online, on iTunes, or on any podcasting app. We discuss practical, evidence-based ways to minimize the willpower you waste and to break or make new habits.
“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” – Epictetus