Save Your Willpower

Oct 18, 2021

Four blue LED digits, separated by a colon, announce the time on the office clock.

10:00. The sun hasn’t yet passed the imaginary line dividing the globe into lines of longitude. You fairly skip past the pastel strands of sugar sprinkled on the sticky doughnuts remaining in the lidded white box. At 2:00 PM the vibrant hues of chocolate ovals corralled in the ceramic bowl on your colleague’s desk clamor for attention as your shoes slow to a shuffle. “No!” your brain commands, and your feet begrudgingly pick up the pace.

The blue digits again form a 10:00. The time, however, is post meridiem, and two closed doors away, your ears pick up the siren song of double fudge chocolate ice cream. Unfortunately, there’s no Odysseus crew to tie you to the sofa. Your soles fly to the freezer, and in less time than it takes to say, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” your spoon is scraping the bottom of the bowl, specks of chocolate syrup the only remaining witness to your resolve’s treachery. What happened to that 10:00 ante meridiem person?

We tend to equate resolve with character. And there is a correlation. But just as other aspects of character – honesty, kindness, empathy – are affected by our personality, lifestyle, and circumstances, so is our willpower. It’s much easier to be patient when we’re not rushed than when running late. We don’t tend to berate ourselves for recognizing this; we accept it and work on making the choice of patience in difficulties our default. Yet somehow, we don’t measure with the same yardstick when steadfastness is involved.

Scientific studies on willpower are anything but conclusive. Some indicate resolve diminishes throughout the day while others declare it’s constant. Other research shows it’s not willpower as a commodity but our beliefs about it which determine its efficacy in our lives. Studies on goal setting and attainment, however, consistently show a core set of behaviors make all the difference between those who attain their objectives and those who only discuss them.

What’s the connection between willpower and achievement? In a word, habits.

Habits – behavioral patterns which are so ingrained they require a minimal amount of, or even no, deliberative thought.

  • Brewing and pouring coffee into the same mug every morning.
  • Brushing teeth nightly before bedtime.
  • Checking email each morning upon waking up. (Not all habits are good ones!)
  • Settling into the same spot on the sofa when watching television.
  • Pulling on a left sock before a right one.
  • Perusing social media while waiting in traffic.
  • Hijacking conversations to relay your news, opinions, troubles, or thoughts.

Habits forge and expose our mind’s muscle memory. It is our unique collection of these repeated behaviors which direct and document our life.

We don’t count on a family member being punctual because of the single instance they arrived at the agreed-upon time; we consider they’re usually late. We don’t ask a colleague for information because of the one circumstance we weren’t first subjected to a recounting – with pictures – of their dog’s most recent antics; it’s their practice of believing we’re as invested in Fido as they are which propels us to inquire elsewhere. We don’t bring up certain topics with a friend as their custom of taking this as an invitation to launch into a tirade of all that’s wrong with the world is exhausting.

For all our tendency to focus on the negative habits of others, however, embedded patterns are a potent ally to our willpower.

How? Decisions tax. They burn mental, emotional, and physical energy. The more we have to make, the less fuel we have for other activities – especially creative thinking.

Habits eliminate dozens, hundreds, or thousands of decisions, leaving willpower available for those grit-your-teeth, just-do-it, just-say-no, just-walk-away, pull-on-your-big-girl/boy-boots situations.

In pre-modern-appliance times, each day of the week had a chore focus, primarily for women who ran their households. It went, with some variation, like this:

  • Monday – Washing
  • Tuesday – Ironing
  • Wednesday – Mending
  • Thursday – Marketing
  • Friday – Baking
  • Saturday – Cleaning
  • Sunday – Rest

Interpreting this through today’s lens can lead us to view people of these days as quaint folks with plenty of time on their hands to being downright lazy. Really, an entire day for laundry? But when correctly understood – haul water; carry in wood for stove; heat water; gather clothing; scrub clothing, made of highly absorbent plant fibers and animal skins, with homemade soap; haul and heat fresh water; haul out dirty water; wring each item by hand; hang on outdoor clothesline on sunny days, hang inside on rainy days; bring in when dry or before dark; fold; put away – it’s easier to grasp the necessity of a full day assigned to this task. Oh, and this work was in addition to the regular daily chores.

The rhythm of this schedule eliminated scores of decisions. “Hmmm…should I do laundry or go to the market today?” didn’t require pondering and answering each day because the routine eliminated the need to ask! While the particulars have changed along with technology and lifestyles, there is still a wisdom found in habits.

From Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits books to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to James Clear’s Atomic Habits to BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, modern research informs about the necessity and nature of habits and their capacity to save and strengthen willpower.

Tired of decision fatigue? Save your willpower. Start a habit.

In January 2019, I committed to walking 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Training for a marathon wasn’t my motivation. Humility was. I faced healthy aging doesn’t “happen,” and I couldn’t rely on everyday bustle to provide sufficient “exercise.” Ugh. Not a word I liked. Growing up on a farm and being a mother to five active sons had provided sufficient activity for decades. As I had no plans to return to bucking hay or milking cows or hiking through soybean fields chopping weeds with a machete, I needed something else. Walking agreed with my schedule, temperament, and geography. It didn’t always, however, agree with my thinking. With few exceptions, I’ve maintained that schedule. Because I’m zealous for exercise? Hardly! Even when thoughts still rebel – enticing me with promises of “tomorrow” or appealing to vanity, “you deserve a break,” – my willpower reaches to habit and finds a reliable friend.

Now to start a habit when double fudge chocolate ice cream commences its late-night crooning.